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FUNDAMENTALS OF 
FICTION WEITING 




FUNDAMENTALS OF 
FICTION WRITING 



By 

Aethub Sullivant Hoffman 



m 



INDIANAPOLIS 

THE BOBBS-IVIEERILL COMPANY 

PUBLISHEES 



Copyright, 1922 
Bt Arthur Sullivant Hoffman 



Printed in the United States of America. 



PRESS OF 

BRAUNWORTH £. CO. 

BOOK MANUFACTURERS' 

BROOKLYN, N. Y. 



V 

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1^ 



A« 



V 



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V^6Ti 



LX. 



To 

JAMES H. GANNON 

Whose Understanding Cooperation Has 

Made the Application of These 

Principles a Pleasant Task 



2093.10 



CONTENTS 

CHAPTER 

I By Way of Introduction 

II A General Survey . . 

III Creating the Illusion 

IV Your Readers 
V Distractions 

VI Clearness . , 

VII Overstrain . . 

VIII Convincingness 

IX Holding the Reader 

X Pleasing the Reader 

XI Plot and Structure 

XII Character , . . 

XIII Individuality vs. Technique . 

XIV Ihe Reader and His Imagination 
XV The Place of Action in Fiction . 

XVI Adaptation of Style to ]Material 
Appendix : Your Manuscripts and 

Editors 

Index ,.; ,. .. .., ,■„ ,., . ,., . 



PAGE 
I 
17 
30 
46 
52 
70 

S7 
94 
109 

120;, 

170 
182 
197 
205 
217 

227 
247 



FUNDAMENTALS OF 
FICTION WRITING 

CHAPTER I 

BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION 

Living in so complex a civilization, we gen- 
erally fail to realize how complex have be- 
come our mental habits. We have come 
more and more to think upon complexities 
until, for the most part, the more elementary 
facts, processes and approaches are slighted 
or omitted as beneath the high development 
of our minds. However learned our think- 
ing may be, its foundation must be elemen- 
tary thinking, and, if elementary thinking is 
neglected because it seems too elementary for 
attention, the result is likely to be unsound- 
ness of the whole structure because it has 
been erected on unsound foundation. 

Add to faulty thinking habit the human ten- 
1 



2 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

dency to accept as established what has been 
handed down to us by our thought predeces- 
sors, dead or contemporaneous. Progress 
can be made only to the extent this tendency 
is overcome by chance or guarded against. 
Guarding against it requires particularly the 
close scrutiny of elementals. 

It is particularly unfortunate that, the spe- 
cialists of course being the most complex 
thinkers of us all, we have allowed our habit 
of specialization to leave to them more and 
more the guidance of general thought, thus 
drifting further and further from elementary 
methods of thinking. 

The more thoroughly you analyze modern 
thinking methods and their results, the more 
evident becomes tlie damage done. 

Simplicity is the key, but, being rather 
proud of our complexity and advancement, 
we have become such strangers to simplicity 
that we even distrust it when we meet it. It 
is most pitiful of all that a mere outward 
show of complexity gains more respect than 
does a simple essential unadorned. Yet it is 
true. Almost automatically simplicity pro- 
duces in us a reaction of contempt, a feeling 
that our highly developed minds have long 



BY WAY OF rNTRODUCTION 6 

ago passed on bej'ond such childish matters. 
We are too advanced to bother over the ele- 
mentals and the result too often is much 
frantic "progress" along wrong paths. 

In the course of my editorial work it im- 
pressed itself on me more and more that 
there was somewhere unsoundness in both 
the editorial basis of criticism and the writers' 
basis of creation. Being afflicted with the 
prevalent complex method of thought, it was 
only gradually that I came to suspect that the 
unsoundness traced back to some of the ele- 
mentals all of us seemed to be taking for 
granted. My suspicions have grown the 
stronger during the years of "laboratory" 
work, at some points ripening into convic- 
tions, so that in this book intended to be of 
practical service to writers of magazine fic- 
tion they will inevitably show. They must, 
therefore, be labeled in advance as depar- 
tures from the usual dicta laid down, so that 
the reader can make allowance accordingly. 

While my personal history is unimportant, 
some of the details that may indicate, or that 
seem to have influenced, the theories devel- 
oped have place in this book as guide-posts 
in valuing or discounting it. 



4 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

It is, for example, only fair to make plain 
in advance that I am probably far less famil- 
iar with books on how to write fiction than 
are most beginners who may read this book, 
and probably know — or remember — less con- 
cerning the dicta of critics and other authori- 
ties on literature in general. On the other 
hand, in view of the probable reaction to 
some of my unacademic views, I claim the 
right to state that these views do not result 
from lack of academic training. Also a brief 
statement of my experience as editor and 
writer seems called for by way of warrant for 
my venturing to advance any theories at all. 

I have been an editor more than twenty 
years, a magazine editor for nearly twenty, 
serving on seven widely different periodicals 
— general, specialized and fiction — Chautaii- 
quan. Smart Set, Watson's, Transatlantic 
Tales, Delineator, Romance, Adventure. At 
inters^als during that time I have contributed 
fiction and articles to Everybody's, McClnre's, 
Bookman, Country Life, Delineator, Smart 
Set and half a dozen others. Previous to this 
there were nearly three years as editor of a 
country weekly and two years of teaching 
English and literature in high school. I spe- 



BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION O 

cialized in English at one university and 
added some graduate work in fiction writing 
at another. 

As a child my home influence was decid- 
edly literary, even to a point that might be 
designated "highbrow," with the natural 
flavoring of science rather to be expected in 
a house largely occupied by my grandfather's 
microscopes and shelves of specimens. In a 
word, my early training was decidedly aca- 
demic, and as a "cub" I came to the magazine 
"game" spelling "literature" with a very large 
capital "L" and with more than the usual 
cub reverence for books and magazines and 
all that pertains thereto. 

Like the majority of magazine editors, I 
found that my first task was to shove most of 
my academic training and point of view into 
the background, making of them an accessory 
rather than a guide, and adopting an alto- 
gether new scale of relative values. A few 
months accomplished the greater part of the 
change, but it required years to develop sus- 
picion of that new and commonly accepted 
scale, to ripen the suspicion to conviction and 
to build up a third scale to take its place in 
my work. 



6 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Before entering the magazine field, I re- 
member only one questioning of precepts and 
tenets. About 1900 I refused to read any 
more authors "for style," reahzing I was 
against my will absorbing too many of their 
individualities, Stevenson's sentence-rhythm 
in particular imposing itself on my literary 
efforts to a decided degree. "Style is the 
man" seems to have been one of the text- 
book statements that sank in deepest, and it 
gave me courage to rebel against another of 
its kind. 

In my college course three things stand out 
as strong in influence. All were encountered 
in work of the thesis class conducted by Pro- 
fessor Joseph Villiers Denney with a sound 
judgment and breadth of view that were 
bound to be stimulative and give permanent 
value. First, laboratory experiments upon 
the class itself showed us, to our great sur- 
prise, the tremendous degree of variation in 
individuals as to the quality and degree of 
their imagination-response to the printed or 
spoken word. I have met few writers or edi- 
tors who had any conception of this variation 
or who had even given the matter a thought, 
yet it is of basic importance to both. 



BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION 7 

The second idea outstanding from my col- 
lege course is the explanation of the psj'cho- 
logical appeal of fiction given by George 
Henrj'^ Lewes to the effect that man finds en- 
joj'ment in fiction because by following the 
fortunes of the hero or identifying himself 
with him he can attain vicariously the perfec- 
tions and successes he can not attain in real 
life. I have not seen it for twentj'^-four years 
and may have distorted it, but the idea as 
stated has been the one acted upon. 

Third, there was Spencer's economj'^ as a 
basis of rhetorical theory. I remember noth- 
ing whatever about it except that he included 
economy of the reader's attention. To what 
extent this phase of his idea is responsible for 
my own theories I do not know. Memory tells 
me I recalled it onlj-^ after working out my 
own, but it is reasonable to hold it a cause 
though an unrealized one. 

Analytics of Literature, by L. A. Sherman, 
made a decided impression on me during col- 
lege or in the years immediately following. 
Undoubtedly I gained much from it, but at 
present I am unable to state its content in any 
but the most vague way and can not detect 
any but academic influences from it, though 



8 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

in this I may be doing it serious injustice. 
De Quincey's On the Knocking at the Gate in 
"Macbeth" made vivid the use of relief 
scenes. From some book by Brander Mat- 
thews I learned that the short story should 
have only one point. 

Five years after college I read Tolstoy's 
What Is Art? Read it with interest, resent- 
ment, bewilderment and enthusiasm. It was 
the first real blow to my unquestioning ac- 
ceptance of all the usual canons of art. The 
impress was tremendous, but, quite in keep- 
ing with my miserable memory, the only def- 
inite, abiding impression I can identify is the 
emphasis laid on simplicity, with the corol- 
lary that creative work must reach peasant 
appreciation if it is to be classed as art. 
Years later I came to attach more and more 
importance to simplicity, arriving at that atti- 
tude by paths leading from practical experi- 
ence — laboratory work, as it were, pat'.s that 
to my vague recollection seem not at ai: those 
of his approach, but I can make no exact 
measure of the extent to which Tolstoy may 
have done my thinking for me or at least 
influenced it. Probably the influence is far 
greater than I realize. 



BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION 9 

In any case, the above are the total of the 
outside influences. It is, of course, impos- 
sible for any one to live in contact with his 
fellows in a world filled with type and 
opinions without absorbing ideas from others, 
but in the sense of influences sufficiently def- 
inite to make conscious impress I can add 
nothing to the above list. In nearly twenty 
years, if I have read any book or article deal- 
ing with the philosophy of literature I do not 
recall the title or the occasion. Five or six 
j-^ears ago I read a third or half of a book that 
taught the writing of fiction, but laid it down 
because it was too difficult for me to under- 
stand and seemed not in accordance with my 
own ideas. I have never read any other text 
on fiction writing, though I have spun the 
pages of a number of them to gain a general 
idea of methods and theories, finding only 
the usual ones. 

This lack of reading authorities was at first 
due to lack of time, but for years I have care- 
fully avoided the influence of others' theories 
to the best of my ability so that I should not 
be diverted or forestalled in an effort to work 
out my own. Naturally, most of the accepted 
theories and methods are current because 



10 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

they are sound, but there is a minority of 
cases in which a dissenting view seems 
warranted. 

My warrant for dissent is that to a very 
great extent the main faults (other than those 
due to lack of natural ability) in the fiction 
submitted to magazines seem directly due to 
faults in accepted theories and methods. 
These faults in theory and teaching may be 
roughly summarized under two heads: 

(1) Assigning to readers theoretical reac- 

tions based on traditional editorial 
and critical precepts instead of bas- 
ing editorial precepts on actual reac- 
tions of readers. In particular, lack 
of emphasis upon preserving the 
illusion. 

(2) Overwhelming writers with demands 

of technique and academics and 
thereby doing all possible to ruin in- 
dividuality and real ability. 
For getting data on the first of these points 
I have been exceptionally well situated. 
More than any other magazine on which I 
have served, more than the half dozen others 
under the same roofs, more, so far as I can 
judge, than any other magazine I know. 



BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION 11 

Adventure gets definite, concrete response 
and criticism from its readers. So far as the 
male sex is concerned, probably no other 
magazine has a more generally representa- 
tive audience, ranging through all classes 
from the highest to the lowest brows. The 
great number of letters and talks resulting 
from this keen personal interest of its read- 
ers in the making of the magazine has been 
invaluable in giving its editor, for more than 
ten years, the actual, specific reactions of 
readers, as opposed to the theoretical reac- 
tions that accepted editorial theories assign 
to them. 

The overemphasis on technique and ac- 
ademics I consider the most harmful factor 
at work in the field of American fiction, from 
both the literary and the magazine point of 
view. I can claim no special equipment for 
speaking on this point other than a decidedly 
academic training followed by over twenty 
years of practical laboratory work, and arri- 
val at conclusions by abandoning all accepted 
precepts and going back to the simple 
elementals. 

The object of this book is not exploitation 
of theories but practical service to writers and 



12 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

would-be writers. It is aimed directly at the 
faults that are the chief causes of rejection of 
manuscripts by magazines and book houses. 
General theories are used chiefly to give 
foundation and perspective, so that a writer, 
knowing the general ends in view, may be en- 
abled to solve intelligently and consistentlj'^ 
even those problems in his work that can not 
be covered specifically by any "book of rules." 
It is a crying need that writers should learn 
to work less by rule of thumb and more from 
a general understanding of what fiction 
really is and of what determines its success. 
For twenty years I have watched the flow of 
manuscripts — more tens of thousands than I 
like to remember — and am year by year more 
convinced that more embryo writers of ap- 
preciable ability are ruined by an overdose 
of technique at the hands of their literary doc- 
tors or by slavish copying of the work of 
some "successful" writer than by any three 
other causes you please to name. 

Technique, naturally, should be a means, 
not an end. In most of the teaching of the 
day so much emphasis is placed on it and 
such large quantities of it are shoved down 
the beginner's throat, before he has developed 



BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION 13 

himself sufficiently to digest it instead of 
merely chew it, that in a majority of cases he 
loses himself and his talents in an emptj'^ 
struggle with formulas and formalities. He 
may learn to chew very well indeed, but the 
odds are that he isn't chewing anything and 
that he has starved himself to death. As a 
matter of fact, he has ceased to be himself. 

Perhaps the reason for this overemphasis 
on technique is that those responsible for the 
books, classes and correspondence courses 
designed to help the budding fiction writers 
are, with very few exceptions, chiefly theo- 
rists with no great background of either actual 
editorial experience or an even fairly consid- 
erable accomplishment in writing fiction. 
Those who have both, even a moderate de- 
gree of both, are so very few that in number 
they constitute only a fraction of a per cent, 
of those at work in this field. The teachers 
of fiction, a good many of them, give extreme- 
ly valuable service, but the majority of them 
either approached their work from abstract 
and academic beginnings or, having sold fic- 
tion themselves, built too much from their 
own experiences, knowing too little of the 
many different paths by which others must 



14 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

progress. Both groups seem to have been too 
much influenced by technique and academics 
in general. 

The editors, too, for the same and other rea- 
sons, have contributed toward making tech- 
nique too great a factor. It is physically im- 
possible to give individual criticism to every 
manuscript tliat comes in, or, when given at 
all, to give it fully in all cases. Almost never 
are the reasons for an acceptance given and 
only in a general way at best. As a result, 
writers in their early formative stages are left 
in the dark unless they turn to the other 
teachers. Much of the criticism given by edi- 
tors, too, is academic and centers on tech- 
nique — because that kind of criticism is easier 
for us to give. Still again, we often mislead 
a writer by failing to distinguish carefully 
between the needs and likes of the particular 
magazine as opposed to those of magazines 
in general. 

Whatever the reasons for the exaggerated 
part technique plays in American fiction, it is 
the chief hope of this little book that it may 
to some degree counteract this curse of form- 
ula and encourage beginners to more direct 
effort for individuality and a more natural 
expression of it. 



BY WAY OF INTRODUCTION 15 

Perhaps this is not a book at all, but merely 
a collection of talks. Certainly there is little 
attempt at carefully unified structure. Its 
writing must be done at odd moments, for I 
am still in editorial harness. Also it will be 
done only in such moments and manner as 
make the writing of it a pleasure rather than 
a task. 

I use the pronoun "I" without stint or 
apologA^ for that is the natural method to fol- 
low when one person speaks to another and, 
while I object strenuously to an author's ob- 
trusion of himself into his fiction, the first 
personal pronoun in books of exposition is 
often of distinct advantage in precision as 
well as in ease and clearness. 

Finally, this book is not meant for geniuses. 
They should by all means march their own 
paths, finding or making their own metliods, 
each to his taste. Though this is a book of 
suggestions, not of rules, the genius does not 
need it. But wait, — alas! half my possible 
readers are gone from me at the ending of 
that last sentence, self-dismissed as indubit- 
able geniuses. I'd forgotten that the writing 
world is composed chiefly of geniuses, most 
of them indubitable and — self-dismissed. 



16 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

But you — I think you'd better read on until 
you find stronger reason to turn away, for, to 
be friendly frank, the odds are so very heav- 
ily against your being a genius. As for me, I 
don't even know more than three or four 
geniuses at the very most and you can be 
entirely at your ease in my quite ordinary 
society. 



CHAPTER II 



A GENERAL SURVEY 



Let us take a general survey of what is to 
follow, beginning with fundamentals. 

The Art Process. — The art process of fic- 
tion involves three elements — the Material, 
the Artist and the Reader. So far as my ex- 
perience and observation go, the Reader is not 
regarded as a part of the art process and in 
both theory and practise fails to get anything 
approaching due consideration. For that rea- 
son his part in the art process will receive 
full treatment in this book, while Material 
and Artist, being already amply covered in 
thousands of texts, will receive more cursory 
treatment. The reader can, nevertheless, be 
made a complete basis of both rhetorical and 
fictional theory. Almost any important ele- 
ment can, for that matter; it is merely a mat- 
ter of choosing tlie point from which you shall 
look at the circle. The reader's having been 

17 



18 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

hitherto shghted in this respect is alone suf- 
ficient reason to choose him if for no other 
purpose than that of viewing the art process 
from a new angle and thereby getting a more 
balanced concept of it. Personally, I believe 
the reader's angle the correct one, being the 
final step, the test of the other two. 

Philosophers will at once quarrel with both 
my theory and my terminology. If they will 
confine their quarreling to the field of philos- 
ophy, they may settle the issue as they please. 
Must a genius think only, or at all, of his read- 
ers when he sits down to write? Probably not, 
but this book is not written for geniuses, who 
need no rules or guidance or at least think 
they do not. Certainly either genius or plain 
human will fall into ruin if he thinks over- 
much on rules and regulations of any kind 
when he should be giving himself up to creat- 
ing. But I've noticed that even geniuses gen- 
erally revise their work after its first launch- 
ing in ink. Why? 

Must art be seen or heard by others before 
it can be art? Naturally I realize that the 
Venus de Milo was a work of art before it was 
dug up, but what of that? It was only a po- 
tential work of art from any practical point 



A GENERAL SURVEY 19 

of view and of no good to any one until 
brought where material and the artist's work 
on the material could continue and complete 
the process by creating in human beings the 
thoughts and emotions they strove to express. 
In that word "express," by the way, lies the 
whole divergence of theory. Theories have 
made it practically subjective only, ignoring 
its objective side — the recipient. Can you, 
outside the most abstract abstractions of 
philosophy, express anything without express- 
ing it to some one ? If you think you can, how 
are you going to be sure that you have ex- 
pressed it? Who is to be the judge on tliis 
point? You, the artist, alone? Perhaps the 
philosophers can show me my position is un- 
tenable, but they can't show me one single 
fiction editor in all the world who wouldn't 
throw up his hands in despair at the very 
idea of letting every "artist" be the judge as 
to whether he had expressed what he thought 
he had expressed. Even non-editors, who 
haven't been tortured by the mistaken idea of 
"artists" that they have succeeded in expres- 
sion, would be more than slow to admit the 
artists themselves as competent judges or to 
abide by the artists' judgments. 



20 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Consigning abstraction to the background, 
you are a fool if you put into material what 
no one else can get out of it. And I'd say 
that you were not a genius, the two terms not 
being mutually exclusive, for a genius — at 
least all whom the world has been able to 
discover — does not fail to convey his message 
to at least a few. 

To how many people and to what grades of 
intelligence must the artist convey his mes- 
sage in order to prove himself an artist? I do 
not know. Neither, I think, does anybody 
else. There seems almost equal disagreement 
as to the character and quality of the mes- 
sage to be conveyed. But I can see no doubt 
that some message must be conveyed to some- 
body and it would seem that the greater and 
better the message and the more the recipi- 
ents, the more successful is the work of art. 

On the practical basis that the would-be 
fictionist wishes to sell his fiction to the maga- 
zine or book houses, it follows naturally that 
as a first step his success will be measured by 
the number of people to whom he is able to 
convey his message, the thought and feeling 
he desires to express. After reaching them, 
it of course becomes a question of the quality 



A GENERAL SURVEY 21 

of his message, but that qiiahty can be known 
only b}-^ those readers reached by it. It be- 
comes a question, also, of the degree to which 
he reaches them. 

But first, and most of all, he must reach 
them. 

Clearness. — It follows that the prime essen- 
tial is clearness. If they are to get his mes- 
sage at all, they must be able to understand 
what he says. If they are to get it fully, he 
must express exactly what he means and do 
so in such manner that they will understand 
it exactly as he means it. This may seem too 
elementary for consideration. It isn't. The 
theory is readily admitted but not sufficiently 
practised. The guiltiest are often the most 
unconscious of their guilt, for it is a common 
serious failing of writers to believe that be- 
cause they have made things plain to them- 
selves they have made them plain to others. 

Clearness is not merely a question of unam- 
biguous sentences, though the majority of 
writers do not successfully mount even that 
simple hurdle. Clearness includes supplying 
all necessary details, suppressing the unneces- 
sary ones, giving to each the proportionate 
ejnphasis you wish the reader to give to it 



22 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

and seeing to it that his response is exact, and 
so shaping your presentation of the story that 
the reader must follow the exact path you 
have mapped out for him. 

Other Essentials. — A valuable accessory in 
attaining clearness is simplicity. But most 
writers abhor simplicity, apparently because 
being simple seems to them to ruin their 
chance of being "literarj^" 

Clearness, simplicity, force, but the last two 
of this old triology of the rhetorics are really 
included under clearness in its full meaning. 
So, too, perhaps, are unity and structure. In 
any case, all are necessary in getting the writ- 
er's message to his readers. 

Shall I sound hopelessly elementary and 
banal when I say that, to register his message 
in full force, the author must enlist his read- 
er's sympathies? Yet the majority of those 
who attempt fiction either give this necessity 
no thought or are unbelievably crude and 
stupid, not only missing chance after chance 
to secure this sympathy, but continually and 
needlessly alienating it. I do not use "sym- 
pathy" in its sugary sense, but shall attempt 
no exact definition in this chapter of prelim- 
inary survey. 



A GENERAL SURVEY 23 

As essentials for the securing of the read- 
er's sympathies may be included unity and 
structure — in some of their phases more prop- 
erly included here than under clearness. 

Also, he must economize his reader — care- 
fully regulate demands on attention, thought 
and feelings according to a human being's 
normal ability to respond as well as accord- 
ing to the varjdng needs of different parts of 
the tale. 

The Illusion. — ^Lastly, to convey his mes- 
sage fully, he must impose and preserve the 
illusion of his story. In this are really in- 
cluded all the necessities named, even clear- 
ness. And, I think, all necessities that can be 
named. This, it may be said, is fiction — the 
imposing and preserving of an illusion. I 
make it the basis of this book because it offers 
what seems at present the angle of approach 
most needed in teaching the successful writ- 
ing of stories, in correcting the faults most 
common and most fatal, and in providing 
writers with a consistent and comprehensive 
theory that they can apply to their needs and 
problems as these arise. 

Itself a return to the solid foundation of 
underlying clcmentals, it has the very practi- 



24 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

cal merit of compelling writers to make the 
elementals the constant test of their work. 
Necessarily involving a constant and careful 
consideration of the reader, it seems the best 
remedy for the greatest weakness in fiction 
writing — the tendency to limit the art process 
to the second of its three steps, Material, 
Artist and Reader. If the third step can be 
helped to its due share of attention, the first 
step can wait its turn, at least so far as the 
successful writing of magazine and ordinary 
book fiction is concerned. 

Do I then mean that the prime object of fic- 
tion is the imposing of an illusion? That 
here lies the test of fiction? That no fiction 
is written or read or valued except for its suc- 
cess in creating an illusion? The imposing of 
an illusion is the object and test of fiction as 
fiction. Fiction serves many purposes. It 
may teach something, show something, what 
you please. But for these things it is only a 
vehicle, and the test of it as a vehicle lies in 
its success at imposing an illusion. 

As to whether my theory of fiction is "new" 
and "revolutionary" I can offer only that it 
was new to my experience and revolutionary 
only in that, in the actual editorial work of 



A GENERAL SUR\^Y 25 

helping writers develop their abihties for fic- 
tion, it has seemed to effect results that no 
other theory was able to effect. I might add, 
also, that the fiction department of a Coast 
University, having come across some of my 
correspondence with contributors, wrote me 
that the fully developed principle of preserv- 
ing the illusion had not, to their knowledge, 
been elsewhere advanced, that they had 
adopted it as a regular part of their course, 
and that it had satisfactorily stood the test of 
several j^ears. On tlie other hand I have 
learned, even since the actual writing of this 
book was begun, that for several years Doctor 
Dorothy Scarborough has taught this prin- 
ciple to her classes in short-story writing in 
Columbia University. 

As to the newness of dividing the art pro- 
cess into the three steps of Material, Artist, 
Reader, I can not say. So far as I know, it is 
my own idea, the joining together of two lines 
of thought on which I had been working. On 
the other hand, I should be amazed if others 
had not previously advanced tlie same theory. 

Literature vs. Magazine Fiction. — What dis- 
tinction do I make between literature and 
magazine fiction? In fundamentals, none. 



26 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Only a small percentage of magazine fiction 
is literature in the distinctive sense of that 
term. That so little of it is literature is partly 
due to the arbitrary and entirely non-literary 
restrictions imposed by the magazines with 
their various aims as to types of audience. 
Some will not accept unhappy endings, some 
bar sex questions, some use no stories of for- 
eign lands, some demand action, some permit 
no mention of drink or tobacco, some will 
have no "problems," some require a breezy, 
sophisticated style, some must have this, some 
abhor that. Most writers must sell what they 
write or stop writing through lack of means 
or lack of tenacity. Naturally they generally 
strive to make their goods acceptable to the 
market, writing with a careful eye on the likes 
and dislikes of the magazines and all the 
more harassed and limited because what is 
one magazine's meat is another magazine's 
poison. 

Some, like Sinclair Lewis, Talbot Mundy 
and others, fully realizing the situation and 
keeping their heads, write what they know 
will sell, write it as well as they can under the 
limitations, and keep on writing it until they 
have attained sufficient standing and finan- 



A GENERAL SUR\'EY 27 

cial foundation — and sufficient mastery — to 
write what they wish and in the way they 
wish. But the vast majority become perma- 
nent slaves in the galley where they must serve 
their apprenticeship, perhaps growing very 
skilful in handling one oar among the many 
oars but hopelessly unable to paddle their 
own canoe. 

If money success is essential or preferred, 
by all means draw a sharp distinction be- 
tween literature and magazine fiction and, 
unless you are quite sure your talents are 
considerable, confine yourself to the latter. 
On the other hand, granted sufficient ability, 
aiming at the former may very well carry you 
further in every way. If what you wish is, 
regardless of worldly success, to write the 
best that in j^ou lies, forget everything else, 
including the restrictions of the magazines. 

Another cause of the scarcity of literature 
In magazine fiction is that writers, editors 
and readers become obsessed with fads, gen- 
erally of a superficial nature, as to style, or 
treatment, or types of material. Underneath 
this is a more fundamental cause — the habit 
of imitation. O. Henry wrote and died and 
even yet the mails are full of manuscripts 



28 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

from writers who are trying to write 0. Henry 
stories — and can't, for the simple and ever- 
lasting reason that no one of them is O. 
Henry. Every John Smith of them would do 
better work if he wrote John Smith stories, 
but lots of them are still selling O. Henry 
stories because editors too are still under the 
O. Henry spell or know that many of their 
readers are. Kipling, Doyle, James and other 
famous authors have each their army of imi- 
tators, many a sheep-like soldier serving in 
several armies at *Dnce. 

Nor do the imitators always aim so mgh. 
A.ny writer popular in the magazines, no mat- 
ter how ephemeral his vogue, serves them 
almost equally well. The lowest depths are 
reached when the model is no one in par- 
ticular but merely a composite of all that is 
most hack and usual on the printed page. 

Not long ago there arose again the fad of 
beginning a story with a paragraph of philos- 
ophy. It has spread like a disease and, I 
think, is one. There were — or are — the era 
of glittering sophistication in style, the Dolly 
Dialogues and Prisoner of Zenda eras, 
doublet and hose, business, sex, Stevensonian 
X"hythm, and so on. 



X GENERAL SURVEY 29 

But all these fads and other limitations 
serve only to lower the proportion of litera- 
ture in magazine fiction. Neither they nor 
anything else creates any fundamental differ- 
ence between the two. Both are fiction, both 
subject to the laws of fiction. And even that 
magazine fiction beyond the pale of litera- 
ture is aimed, somehow, at the reader and is 
to be judged on that basis. 



CHAPTER III 

CREATING THE ILLUSION 

By creating the illusion I mean making the 
reader forget the world he really lives in and 
carrying him into the world of the story, 
either identifying himself with one of the 
characters or looking on and listening en- 
tirely absorbed in what he sees and hears. 
The illusion is wholly successful, fully effec- 
tive, only if the reader is made to live alto- 
gether in the story world. He must forget 
that he is a reader, that he holds a book or 
magazine in his hands, that the story is 
.merely a stoiy instead of actual happening. 
He inust forget that there is such a thing as 
an author; he must forget the method and 
manner of telling in the telling itself. He 
must live the story. 

The Illusion and Its Hold. — Naturally per- 
fection of illusion is not generally attained, 
and naturally what holds some readers in 
30 



CREATING THE ILLUSION 31 

thrall may not hold others. The more sophis- 
ticated the reader, the more difficult, other 
things being equal, to make him lose himself 
utterly in the story. Probably, too, the more 
fiction one has read, the less readily is one 
swept away into the story's spell. The same 
obstructions hold in any art, or in eating or 
any other pleasure. The penalty of sophisti- 
cation in anything is further removal from 
the direct, elemental appeal. The penalty of 
satiety and overuse is a dulling of response. 
But these facts do not alter the matter of 
what the appeal is. 

But do not the sophisticated get more out 
of fiction — out of the "highbrow" fiction they 
tend toward — than do the unsophisticated 
out of the same fiction? Get more what? 
More of the finer shadings undoubtedly, but 
less of the elemental appeal. And is it really 
fiction they are reading or something else 
mixed with fiction, and is it from fiction or 
other things they draw pleasure or edifica- 
tion? Their attitude is at least partly that of 
a critic rather than a recipient; their interest 
in "What is happening" is at least partly dis- 
tracted to "how it is written." From fiction 
itself, from fiction as fiction, the unsophisti- 



32 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

cated, granting them understanding of the 
words they read, in most cases get a greater 
intensity of appeal than do the others. 
Understand, I am speaking not of general 
sophistication but of sophistication in fiction. 

Fiction a Vehicle. — As you run over in your 
mind various writers of acknowledged rank 
you may feel that, in face of that rank, illu- 
sion is an unsound basis of test and compari- 
son. The stumbling-block is that much of 
what we call fiction is not pure fiction but a 
hybrid, a cross, a half-breed or even a quad- 
roon — fiction plus an essay, treatise, study, 
sermon, analysis, philosophy, satire, propa- 
ganda, a performance in technique, an exhi- 
bition of style, what you will. It is often the 
other element or elements, or the combina- 
tion of elements, that appeals and that gives 
rank and value. There is no reason why 
writings should not be read and written for 
the sake of these other elements or of the 
combinations, but such writings are not pure 
fiction. 

In such cases fiction is used not for itself 
alone but as a vehicle for something else. 
The wagon and its load may be more pleas- 
ing and valuable than the wagon alone, but 



CREATING THE ILLUSION 33 

only the wagon is fiction and therefore it is 
with the wagon alone that we are now con- 
cerned. No matter how good the load may 
be, you can not carry it unless you can build 
and drive a good wagon. Probably the ma- 
jority of writers will profit most by giving 
their whole attention to the wagon, partly be- 
cause they haven't a sufficiently valuable 
load to put in it and partly because they need 
their undivided effort to make the wagon fit 
to carry anything. Certainly it is sound for 
ninety-odd per cent, of fiction writers to mas- 
ter their vehicle before they attempt hauling 
messages and information in it. 

This book deals with straight fiction only. 
Straight fiction may of course include analy- 
sis, philosoph3% technique, information and 
all the other things for which it is so often 
made the vehicle, but if it is to remain straight 
fiction, these must be really integral and 
necessary parts of it — analysis of or by the 
characters themselves, the information inher- 
ent in the material, the technique necessary 
for presentation, the philosophy of a charac- 
ter, locality or nation. Having sufficiently 
mastered straight fiction, a writer is infinitely 
more likely to be successful in registering on 



34 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

his readers whatever it is he may wish to 
convey through fiction as a vehicle. His mes- 
sage may be so interesting or important that 
people will seize upon it eagerly, no matter 
how crude or weak the fiction-vehicle may 
be, but it would reach them all the more 
strongly if the vehicle were a competent 
carrier. 

Illusion the Essence of Fiction. — The very 
essence of straight fiction is the creation and 
maintenance of an illusion. That this truth 
has been so largely lost sight of is due largely 
to the frequent mixture of fiction with other 
things, so that the mixture, instead of fiction 
itself, has tended to become the model and 
standard. If American writers are to make 
more rapid progress toward real success, they 
would do well to segregate fiction and study 
it for itself alone. 

Illusion Easily Shattered. — Successful illu- 
sion depends on an infinite variety of things, 
is as sensitive to breakage as is a bubble and, 
once broken, though it can be again created, 
its strength is irremediably impaired. A 
writer of any merit can impose his illusion, 
yet often he does so apparently through in- 
stinct only, without evidence of carefully con- 



CREATING THE ILLUSION 35 

eidered knowledge and intent. Certainly it is 
maddeningly common to see him again and 
again destroy his illusion, if only temporarily, 
with some "little" flaw that would almost un- 
consciously be avoided if he had clear con- 
ception of the fundamental importance of 
perfect and uninterrupted illusion. 

The importance of maintenance of illusion 
can not be too much stressed. As a reader can 
you keep yourself within the spell of a story 
you are reading if you are subject to constant 
physical interruptions — conversation directed 
at you, people coming in and going out, loud 
and sudden noises? No more can a reader 
keep himself within the spell of a story if he 
is subject to constant interruptions from with- 
in the story itself. How can a story maintain 
its spell over j^ou if you are again and again 
reminded by its text that it is, after all, only 
a story, somebody's words typed on the pages 
of a magazine you bought at the corner stand? 

Costliness of Breaking the Illusion. — Each 
such interruption or reminder does its share 
in wrecking the illusion, each compels the 
story to begin over again in the business of 
making you forget your world in its world, 
each leaves the remainder of the illusion the 



36 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

weaker. Even a single one in a story works 
very appreciable damage to the illusion as a 
whole, lessens the net result of the story's 
impact upon readers. Instead of the story's 
registering one hundred per cent, of its value, 
it is, as a result of a single break in its illusion, 
likely to register, not ninety-eight or ninety- 
five per cent., but eighty-five or seventy or 
sixty per cent. There can, of course, be no 
exact measure of the loss in the story's effec- 
tiveness, of the amount of failure in the third 
step of the art process, but very surely this 
loss is almost universally underestimated or 
altogether ignored. 

Whatever the value of your stoi-y as fic- 
tion, you can not afford to have its one hun- 
dred per cent, reduced even five per cent, in 
its register upon your reader, and the instant 
you remind him that he is still merely himself 
in his same old world — or, even worse, make 
him momentaril}'^ a critic instead of a reader 
— you seriously damage the illusion and les- 
sen your story's effect. The break may 
occupy only a fraction of a second's time, the 
reader, after a few paragraphs may forget all 
about the break, may even be wholly uncon- 
scious at the time of its effect upon him, but 



CREATING THE ILLUSION 37 

the harm has been done nevertheless. It can 
be no comfort to the writer that the reader 
doesn't know why the stoiy failed to register 
its full strength; the important point is that it 
did fail. 

Some breaks in the illusion accomplish 
even more harm than letting the reader es- 
cape from the storj^'s spell, since it is always 
so easily possible to lose a reader's sympa- 
thies or, worse, let him fall into a critical 
attitude, or, worst of all, cause him irritation 
or arouse his hostility. If, in reaching the 
reader, a story loses part of its value by 
merely letting him get from under its spell, 
the loss is still greater if it loses his sympa- 
thies, for even when he is again brought 
under its spell he can not possibly be so 
wholly given over to it as he was before. If 
you have made of him a critic — well, how 
much sympathy has a critic? If you have 
irritated him, naturally j^our chances of 
pleasing him are sadly diminished, since you 
must overcome a heavy handicap before j'^ou 
can even begin to do so. And if you have 
made him your enemy, you may as well bid 
farewell to any chance of your story's suc- 
cess. No matter how good the first two steps 

209S30 



38 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

of that story's art process — Material, Writer 
— if the third step — Reader — can not be 
taken, then nothing has been completed ex- 
cept an unrealized potentiality. 

Need of Emphasizing the llhision. — And 
yet, when it comes to the actual writing of 
fiction these practical, common-sense, vital 
f&cts are unrecognized or forgotten to an 
almost unbelievable degree. Day after day 
the magazine offices are rejecting manu- 
scripts that would have been accepted but for 
the failure of illusion. Generally the editor 
calls it "unconvincingness." Year after year 
class-room and text-book go on teaching plot, 
style, characterization that go for naught if 
they are unable to register upon the reader. 
Year after yesiV writers, oppressed with rules 
and abstractions, laboriously build pieces of 
m:achinery and expect readers to take these 
obvious, clanking collections of bolts, girders, 
wheels and cogs for something that is alive. 
Why not? They've been taught to consider 
only the making of a perfect machine accord- 
ing to formula. They find the magazines 
heavily laden with machines and are the more 
convinced that machinery is the ultimate at- 
tainment. Little teaching do they get that 



CREATING THE ILLUSION 39 

helps them put the hreath of Hfe into their 
stories or gives them the habit of seeing also 
from the reader's point of view ! They "try it 
on their friends" — God save the mark ! — their 
friends respond or pretend to and the prob- 
lem of the reader, if it arose at all, is satisfac- 
torily settled for all time. 

But mustn't they be taught plot, etc.? Of 
course. But plot, etc., are merely tools. A 
man may be passing skilful in the handling 
of chisel and mallet yet fail dismally as a 
sculptor. Plot, etc., are necessary, but they 
must be taught, not as abstractions, but as 
reasoned and reasonable outgrowths of some- 
thing more vital than they. 

Individuality Crushed by Rules. — Some 
writers escape from the net or are too big to 
be caught in it. These are in a painful minor- 
ity. The tragedy is in the host of those who 
had sufficient talent and individuality for a 
moderate success but never attain it because 
their talent is diverted to formulas and their 
individuality crushed by academics. 
' Those who escape do so generally through 
either disgust or despair. They sweep the 
rules away or turn their backs upon them and 
' — go ahead on their own. One advantage 



40 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

gained thereby is instant, inevitable, auto- 
matic, for they have uiade an all-important 
step forward — being no longer ridden and 
haunted by formulas and rules, the writer at 
last has a chance to live the illusion of his 
own story and therefore a far better chance 
of making the reader live it. 

The following is part of a letter from a 
writer who appears in The Saturday Evening 
Post, McClure's and other magazines of that 
grade. Years ago he used to send me well- 
made but colorless and formal stories. Dur- 
ing some of the years between he had done 
no writing. Then he sent me one of the new 
kind. Amazed at the remarkable improve- 
ment in his work, I asked him what had hap- 
pened. In his reply the omitted name is that 
of a magazine: 

In those days I was rigidly following the 

rules of what I call the school of the 

American short story. 

stories and the stories of the school 

which it dominated, were all like Fords. They 
were of limited horsepower, neat, trim and 
shiny, taking up very little road space, struc- 
turally correct and all following the blue- 
print without the slightest deviation. There 
weren't any big powerful Cadillacs zipping 
along, or any dirty, greasy trucks hauling 
huge burdens and disturbing and upsetting 



CREATING THE ILLUSION 41 

the normal run of things. It was an endless 
highway just jammed with Fords. 

The story, from a standpoint of con- 
struction, was astonishingly well done. It 
had a beginning, a middle and an end, but 
few intestines anywhere along the route. The 
workmanship was wonderful. It was aston- 
ishing how many people there were who 
could write such beautiful English. There 
was one punch, one climax, which was very 
carefully led up to, and that was all. 

Well, I tried to follow the rules as appar- 
ently laid down. I agonized over each word 
and sentence to get 'em just exactly right. I 
have sat at my tj^pewriter for an hour to get 
just the few syllables that their standards 
seemed to demand. 

The Hades of it was that the reader was be- 
ing cheated all the time. He got a lot of very 
fine writing, but not much story. It was like 
sitting down to a dinner where the appoint- 
ments were perfect, the water clear and ice- 
cold, the napery thick, the glassware thin, 
flowers on the table, an orchestra, perfect 
service, and not enough food for a canarj^- 
bird. In other words, a race of bird-shot 
stylists was being propagated who could write 
beautifully about an ant-hill but hadn't the 
equipment to do anything for a mountain. 

I trailed along because I didn't know any 
better and because I hadn't been waked up 
and sliaken down. I had lived, but I had not 
assimilated and correlated my experiences. 

Now his present method, and if your nose 
is inclined to turn up at his idea of style, 
before you let it, make very sure that he 



42 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

hasn't taken the one sure road to the only 
kind of style worth any one's having. And 
note carefully what he says about the outside 
of the motor-car: 

I try to give the reader a lot for his money. 
I don't try to do any fine writing. Only one 
of a million of us can be a polished stylist. 
I'm not that one, but I think I can evolve a 
story and tell it. So there is no more agoniz- 
ing about the style. I try not to make the out- 
side of the motor-car which bears mj-^ people 
all gold and shiny and flower-decked so that 
the countryside will look at the car, and not 
at those it contains. I just try to make it a 
good, suitable, unobtrusive vehicle which will 
start and get to the journey's end without any 
tire trouble or backfires. I try to imagine 
real people — very often they are friends and 
acquaintances whose mental reactions I have 
noted under circumstances similar to those 
described in the yarn. And I try to visualize 
every important scene before I set it down. 
That is, I shut my eyes and see the people as 
though I were looking at a scene from a play. 

And it's just a joy, under those conditions, 
to write. To go to my machine with the keen- 
est anticipation. It is the finest sort of an 
adventure to translate a good stoiy and send 
it on its way. I write much more easily and 
I think less artificially than in those days of 
deadly correctness — and dullness. 

There are thousands of other cases — 
proved, not yet proved or never to be proved 
— of writers whose individuality has been 



CREATING THE ILLUSION 43 

crushed out or whose success has been pre- 
vented or delayed by the present academic 
and unhuman methods of teaching the writ- 
ing of fiction, by forgetting the illusion and 
the reader for the sake of the means of secur- 
ing them. Here is an example so extreme 
that it must in fairness to other teachers of 
fiction be labeled as the last word in formula. 
It is, nevertheless, only the usual method 
fully and relentlessly developed. It is taken 
word for word from the teacher's printed 
statement of his "mathematical rule" for 
plot: 

If the thread A, or viewpoint character, fig- 
ures with the thread B in an opening incident 
of numerical order "n" there must follow 
rapidly after the opening of the story an inci- 
dent n-plus-1 involving threads A and C, an 
incident n-plus-2 involving threads A and D, 
an incident n-plus-3 involving threads A and 
E, and so on, up to perhaps at least n-plus-4 
or n-plus-5; and furthermore, n must pro- 
duce n-plus-1, n-plus-2 must be the result of 
n-plus-1, n-plus-3 must be the result of n-plus- 
2, and so on. 

That formula is, I dare say, sound and, if 
sound, undoubtedly useful. The teacher sells 
his own stories regularly to magazines and, 
as he is an apparently successful teacher. 



44 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

probably numerous pupils of his are doing 
the same. (It is stated that his output for the 
last five years was about one milhon words, 
with sales of about ninety-six per cent.) Yet 
I think you will agree that his formula leaves 
something to be desired. 

If I have talked overlong of Reader and 
Illusion in their general aspect it is because I 
have found that, while some writers grasp the 
idea at once, a minority seem incapable of 
seeing any possibility of difference between 
what a writer intends the reader to get and 
what the reader really does get, incapable of 
believing that they have not expressed in full 
and with perfect exactness all that they saw 
and know and felt when writing, and incap- 
able of conceiving any reader who would not 
be spell-bound by their stories and in full 
sympathy with every shading and inflection 
whether real, imagined or flatly reversed in 
expression. 

The interrupters and destroyers of illusion 
are almost infinite in variety and number. 
The means of avoiding them, indeed, consti- 
tute a complete set of working rules for the 
writing of fiction — better still, a basis from 
which a writer can draw his own rules to 



CREATING THE ILLUSION 45 

meet all occasions as they arise. They may 
be very roughly divided into classes, the 
small, cruder interruptions that are compara- 
tively detached and temporary and the more 
fundamental, organic and permanent ones. 
Most of the latter being treated, though from 
a different point of view, by the usual text- 
book, the smaller ones are in greater need of 
consideration and will be taken up first. 

It is understood, however, that definite clas- 
sification is not attempted and that the divi- 
sion into sub-groups is for convenience only. 
An item in one group may belong equally in 
several others and will often be treated under 
more than one. 



CHAPTER IV 

YOUR READERS 

Readers of course vary in susceptibility to 
the illusion of fiction — vary in concentration, 
reading method, background of culture and 
of experience in life, familiarity with the 
ways and habits of fiction, critical attitude, 
imagination, particularly strength and qual- 
ity of imaginative imagery, and in everything 
else that makes up mentality and individual- 
ity. Must the writer satisfy and hold all 
these from one extreme to the other? Yes, if 
he is to do perfect fiction. Possibly perfect 
fiction exists, but fortunately readers can be 
more or less divided into classes or types, 
each class capable of being very roughly 
characterized as a unit. The more classes 
reached and satisfied by a story, the better 
the story. 

Be Clear as to Your Audience. — ^The fiction 
author can follow one of three courses: 
46 



YOUR READERS 47 

(1) He can "just write," disregarding the 
question of who his readers may be and trust- 
ing that his style and methods may happen 
to be such as will win him an audience. This 
is an admirable method provided it chances 
to succeed. If it doesn't, he will have to 
abandon it for one of the others. 

(2) Choose a particular class for his 
audience and aim directly at them. Natur- 
ally he will have to study his audience very 
carefully and know them rather thoroughly 
if he is to succeed. Limiting his audience, 
he limits the scope and therefore the degree 
of his success; a story satisfying the highest 
class can not be so good as if it satisfied both 
the highest and the next highest class or sev- 
eral other classes. It is entirely possible to 
do both, as Shakespeare and others have 
proved. 

(3) Aim to reach as manj'^ classes as pos- 
sible. Here, too, he must study and know his 
audience. Obviously it is a higher aim than 
the second, demanding more of the author. 
Having a larger audience to draw on, it is 
likely to attain greater success as measured 
by number of readers, though it is always a 
nice problem to decide in a given case 



48 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

whether more readers can be secured by 
playing for your share of the majority, 
against all competitors, or by concentrating 
on a minority, against fewer competitors. 

Considering carefully these three courses, 
it is necessary first to know your audience 
and keep them very definitely in mind, 
unless you are willing to write wholly from 
the subjective point of view and go it blind 
as to your audience, taking the extremely 
long chance that your substance and style 
maj^ happen to satisfy a sufficient number of 
readers. It generally doesn't. Second, it is 
advisable to reach as many classes of readers 
as possible. Your task, then, is to know and 
to consider constantly as many classes of 
readers as you can. And knowing them 
means much more than having a general 
knowledge of their tastes. 

Fundamental Reactions Universal. — Some 
will straightway object, "But I prefer to write 
for only the highest class of readers." It is 
their right to do so, and their choice may be 
a wise one. But I maintain two points. First, 
it is not the highest aim. Second, the writer 
who prefers this aim is probably most likely 
of all to fail to know his audience. The mis- 



VOUR READERS 49 

take to which he is peculiarly liable is that 
of forgetting that the highest class is not a 
tiling apart but merely all the other classes 
plus something more. His tendency is to be- 
lieve that thej^ have passed on beyond all the 
tastes and reactions of the other classes far 
more than they really have. Most of all, he 
is likety to credit thein with having risen 
above the cruder, more fundamental tastes 
and reactions of the other classes. They 
haven't. They have merely piled upon the 
fundamental reactions a larger collection of 
refined — and often artificial — reactions than 
have the others. The fundamental reactions 
may become somewhat blurred and aborted, 
are certainly less consciously active and gen- 
erally less active in fact, but they are still 
there and still operative and sometimes in full 
strength. That is as true as any general rule 
that can be laid down concerning the human 
mind and too much emphasis can not be 
placed on it. 

The Target. — To reach any audience per- 
fectly you must reach them at all points, 
satisfying all demands, overcoming all their 
inherent obstacles, allowing for the varying 
equipment ranging from the lowest to the 



50 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

highest among them — equipment of back- 
ground, imagination, concentration, general 
intelligence and so on. And on each point 
you must reach those most gifted in it, most 
difficult to satisfy in that respect. It is not 
enough to satisfy those with little cultural 
background; your story must stand the test 
of those who have the most. It must reach 
not only those who set particular store by the 
delicate shadings, but those who demand a 
definite story interest. On any point you 
must aim to reach the individuals who are 
most difficult to reach on that point. In no 
other way can you hope to reach all. 

It is not easy to do. In fact, it isn't done. 
But it must be the target aimed at. It is not 
easy to reach both the person who reads 
word for word, extracting the full flavor of 
each, and also the person who skips sen- 
tences, paragraphs and pages in mad pursuit 
of "what happens"; nor him who at a word 
or two from you reconstructs a whole scene 
in his mind's eye, and him whose imagination 
can vision for him only what j^ou describe in 
detail. Yet, if you are to attain the degree of 
success possible to you, you must aim to sat- 
isfy in each such dilemma the extreme that 
for you is most difficult. 



YOUR READERS 51 

Study Human Beings. — First, last and all 
the time, success means study of the reader. 
That means study of human beings, not mere- 
ly of opinions of them or of effects secured or 
apparently secured on them by other writers. 
The opinions may be mistaken; the effects 
may be there, but you and the other writers 
may fail to assign to them the proper causes. 
Strangely enough, the causes most often over- 
looked are the elemental tastes and reactions 
common to all normal humans. It is more 
"literar}%" and more convenient, to study lists 
of "best sellers," to read critical reviews and 
academic essays, to be given rules and stand- 
ards by some one else — who got them from 
reviews, essays and "best sellers." But it is 
human beings who are your readers. Get 
your data at first hand. 



CHAPTER V 

DISTRACTIONS 

To HOLD a reader in the illusion of a story 
it is of course necessary to hold his attention, 
not merely in a general way, but entirely and 
without break, interruption or hindrance. 
He must live wholly and every instant in the 
story world — must never be recalled for even 
the fraction of a second to the real world he 
lives in. 

In writing any story there are a thousand 
chances of breaking the illusion by some lit- 
tle touch. Most of these are almost auto- 
matically avoided even by writers of small 
ability. Otherwise there would be no fiction. 
The point is that what are usually a very 
small minority are not avoided by most writ- 
ers. The result is that editors are likely to 
reject the story because it does not "hold the 
interest," is not "convincing" or "lacks 
punch." Their finding is probably just, 
though they may not have analyzed for 
52 



DISTRACTIONS 53 

causes, and the writer is not enlightened or 
even convinced of the finding. 

Disproportionate Damage from Distrac- 
tions. — Failing to avoid even an extreme 
minority of the chances for breaking the illu- 
sion is enough to injure the story very 
seriously. You can't afford to let your reader 
escape from the story's spell, slip back into 
the world he really lives in, even momentar- 
ily. For you have to waste at least a little of 
the story's potential force in getting him back 
again, which means that you can never get 
him back quite so fully as you had him be- 
fore. You may even not get him back at all. 
You can't afford to have him become even 
momentarily a critic, for you must waste at 
least a little of the storj^'s potential appeal in 
order to change him back from the critical 
attitude to sympathy and absorption. You 
can't afford to let his attention wander off to 
side-issues, for the story has to stop working 
at being a story in order to get him back on 
the main line and it needs every atom of its 
strength for the main job. 

We recently published one of the best 
stories Adventure ever printed, a combination 
of simple narrative appeal and of literary 



54 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

excellence of the first water. It is bringing 
us many letters of appreciation. To-day I 
read a long letter from one reader who had 
found in that story nothing, either good or 
bad, except that there was an indirect incon- 
sistency as to one character's exact age. That 
was what you might call the net result of that 
story on a reader. All the strength and merit 
of an otherwise splendid story completely 
wrecked for a reader by that one trifling 
point! Undoubtedly others detected the same 
inconsistency but suffered less acutely or did 
not register their "kick." But in each case 
the appeal of the story lost strength out of 
all proportion to the size of the detail 
involved. 

It is a typical, not an exceptional, case, ex- 
cept for the unusual merit of the story ruined. 
Thousands of letters like that come in from 
readers, often many on the same tiny slip or 
discrepancy. To those readers the story in 
question left as its chief impress upon them a 
violence — at one tiny point — to their knowl- 
edge of fact or sense of consistency. In each 
case how many otlier such readers are there 
who do not write us? 

Other thousands of readers protest over 



DISTRACTIONS 55 

such slips, such distractions from the illusion, 
but are not so completely swamped by them 
that thej'^ fail to consider the merits of the 
story as a whole. But, even with them, how 
big looms the tiny flaw in proportion to the 
whole! In each case how many other such 
readers are there who do not write in? 

How to Use Your Friends. — No point that 
may distract a reader can be so small that it 
is not serious. You can not measure the harm 
done; in one case there may be no harm, in 
another a little, in another a great deal. But 
M writers who have their friends "criticize'* 
their stories would ask these friends to give 
less attention to "hterary" points and take 
careful note of every little thing that in any 
way attracted attention to itself or sent the 
mind wandering off to things outside the 
story, they would get some invaluable point- 
ers — of the only kind that the usual friend is 
really capable of giving. If some day the col- 
leges make systematic laboratory tests along 
these lines they should get data as surprising 
as they would be useful. 

Unusual Words. — Consider how tiny a 
thing is capable of pricking the bubble of 
illusion, of jerking the reader for a brief 



56 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

instant back into his real world so that he 
must be drawn again into the fiction spell. 
If in reading a story you come upon some 
such word as "pringle," "anodic," "calipash," 
"mansuetude," "spiracle," "frigorific," "cam- 
bist," "gibbous," "ortelic" you probably find 
it unfamiliar and, if so, of course know that 
you do. Therein lies the breaking of the il- 
lusion. However brief the total time occu- 
pied by your reaction to the word, however 
slightly you may seem to have paused over 
it, you paused and you paused over it — gave 
attention to it, not to the story. You had to 
remember yourself, your own knowledge 
and experience. Quite possibly you also 
considered the author's contrasting knowl- 
edge and experience, and the author is not 
the story. Possibly you tried to figure out 
the meaning of the word from its derivation 
or the context, or dredged your own mem- 
ory for it, making your pause over it still 
longer. Perhaps your pause totaled only a 
few seconds or a fraction of one second, but 
— the illusion was broken and had to be 
rebuilt 

Far less unusual words than those cited 
will be unfamihar to part of most audiences. 



DISTRACTIONS 57 

Would one such word do very serious dam- 
age? Very unlikely. But it would do some, 
and even a small damage is to be avoided if 
possible. Would four such words? There 
can of course be no definite measurement, 
but one thing is sure — four would do far more 
than four times as much damage as one. The 
effects are cumulative, following a kind of 
geometrical progression. And no one knows 
when a serious breaking-point may be 
reached. 

Is a writer never to use a "big word"? Not 
if it's too big for his audience. In the mouth 
of a character he may put any word he 
pleases, provided it is used for sound pur- 
poses of characterization or for some other 
specific demand of the story itself, but not for 
the mere telling of the story. He might, for 
example, wish to impress a learned or 
scientific atmosphere. In this case, too, there 
is the saving fact that the reader need not 
know the meaning of these words, and knows 
that he need not, just as he would know he 
need not if he were actually living in the 
scene. He does not feel challenged by them. 
"Big words" may be justified in scores of 
typical instances, but there is no instance in 



58 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

which it does not pay to consider whether the 
damage may not outweigh the gain. 

Even an unusual word whose meaning is at 
once apparent to any one, like "cat-silent," 
should be carefully weighed as to advantages 
vs. disadvantages before it is used. And only 
in the rarest instances can there be justifica- 
tion for using such a word more than once in 
the same storj% lest the recurrence added to 
the unusualness make a double distraction. 

Foreign Words. — The same applies to 
words from foreign languages. Undoubtedly 
they are valuable in giving color, but this 
value is too often attained at too high cost in 
distraction and is frequently attainable 
through other means without loss. The dam- 
age they do is by no means theoretical, for 
readers do not hesitate to complain to editors 
on this score. I do not remember their doing 
so in the case of "big words," for naturally a 
man doesn't go to the trouble to admit he 
doesn't understand words in his own lan- 
guage, while often rather proud of not under- 
standing foreign words. Sufficient color 
through foreign words can be gained by using 
only a few, even if these few are repeated, 
and by using only those instantly clear from 



DISTRACTIONS 59 

the context or from unmistakable similarity 
to the corresponding English word (like 
"fader") if context heads the reader in that 
general direction. There is comparatively; 
only a slight risk in using those that are very 
generally known, like "ami" or "mon chere" 
also ejaculations that are evidently such and 
therefore make no demand on the reader's 
understanding. 

Classical, Historical and Fictional Refer- 
ences. — The danger, of course, is that the 
reader may not be familiar with the refer- 
ence, knows that he is not, and therefore 
becomes conscious of himself as a reader. 
Another risk is that, being familiar with 
them, his mind drifts off to them more 
than the writer intended. Used with discre- 
tion, they may have value, but they are gen- 
erally not used with discretion and, generally 
speaking, a story is the better for telling itself 
without covering part ot the ground by means 
of what arc practically quotations from other 
stories. Also, there are other dangers than 
that of simple distraction, which will be cov- 
ered under other heads. 

Unusual Proper Names. — To put this case 
concretely, here is the list of the male charac- 



60 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

ters in one single story I read yesterday in a 
manuscript: "Tom Goit," "Braith," "Gra- 
hame," "Tim Stine," "Linus Kime," "Jes- 
tock," "Bissonet," "Heads," "Arnet," "Jim- 
son,'* "Kliedjorn," "Jed Willoughby," "Andy 
Meenal," "Yard Sant," "Simson," "Angus 
Stell," "Gant," "Beezaw," "Colin Corbin," 
"Happy Falls," "Jim Light," "Rafe Gillen," 
"Charley Jance." It is probably not entirely 
complete, but was made by running through 
the pages and taking all names noted, usual 
or unusual. Can any human being read that 
story without having his attention distracted 
to the fact that those names are violently un- 
usual? Doesn't the fact that they are unusual 
add an air of unreality to the whole story — 
story-book names instead of real people's 
names? Won't many readers be definitely 
irritated by the artificiality and mannerism? 
Aside from this and similar breakings of il- 
lusion it was a good story and will undoubt- 
edly be printed somewhere. Its author is a 
successful writer of fiction. But hasn't the 
story lost very appreciably through that 
amazing collection of proper names? 

On the other hand there is a certain advan- 
tage in the use of such names in some types 



DISTRACTIONS 61 

of story and for some audiences, though not 
in the story from which the above are taken 
or for the audience at which it is aimed. 
Some readers Hke proper names that are 
baldly fictional and unreal; that is what fic- 
tion means to them — unreality, utter differ- 
ence from their own lives. These are inuch 
the same readers who like their stories filled 
with duchesses, earls and ancestral halls. A 
generation or two ago these were a rather 
large group, and larger still before that, but 
nowadays folks are more sophisticated in 
their fiction and need illusions that run more 
nearly with reality. And, at best, isn't it 
rather a cheap method of abnormality? 

Unusual names serve also to make the 
characters more vivid to the reader's mind, 
but this method of characterization is a crude 
one that should give way to better ones en- 
tailing no risk. 

In humorous stories of a certain type they 
are entirely legitimate. On the other hand, 
look carefully at your proper names lest, in a 
serious story, you give a character a name 
like "Hencastle" that brings a grin where you 
do not wish to have a grin. 

Alliterative proper names are another 



62 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

phase of the evil in the case of readers suf- 
ficiently sophisticated to note the alliteration 
at all. 

Avoid proper names that are difficult or 
ambiguous of pronunciation. Don't give 
your characters the same names as those of 
real people prominent in the public eye 
unless a name is so common that it is not 
likely to distract the reader from the story's 
illusion through thoughts of the real person; 
even a too similar name is risky in some 
cases, e. g. any variation of the unusual name 
"Roosevelt." 

Dialect. — While belonging more properly 
under later heads it serves, too, as a simple 
distraction in itself. Its advantages are 
obvious, yet some readers will read no story 
with dialect in it and some magazines will 
print none. 

Mistakes. — A typographical error, a mis- 
take in spelling, punctuation or English is 
sure to check and drag out of the illusion any 
reader who notes it. Such matters are defin- 
itely the editor's responsibility, but he is far 
from infallible and the author would, in most 
cases, profit by safeguarding against him. An 
editor will be grateful, particularly the assist- 



DISTRACTIONS 63 

ant editor who edits copy and reads proof. 
In our own office we can quote you lots of 
rules as to correct English — and show you vio- 
lations of them in our own pages. 

Mistakes in fact and statement w^ill be con- 
sidered later. 

Unusual Mannerisms of Style. — Distinction 
is to be made between, on the one hand, in- 
dividuality and deliberate shaping of style to 
attain a particular atmosphere or suit par- 
ticular material and, on the other hand, man- 
nerisms that are necessary to neither of these 
ends and harmful in distracting attention to 
themselves. No one can possibly draw a def- 
inite line between these two groups, but a 
warning is badly needed against forgetting 
the danger. It is a question for laboratory 
test. Try to get your friends — or better, your 
enemies — to read your story with this point in 
view, or do not mention it beforehand and 
cross-examine them afterward as to what 
mannerisms registered on their attention. 
And don't hand-pick your critics or "dogs" 
from any one class or group unless j^ou mean 
your story to appeal to no other. 

A novelette, which had to be rewritten be- 
cause of it, used the following mannerism 



64 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

hundreds and hundreds of times until each 
recurrence was not only a distraction but an 
agony : "he ran, and running, laughed aloud," 
"he sang, and singing, voiced his mood," "he 
fought, and fighting, worked toward the 
house." Another writer habitually, in the 
words following or introducing a line of dia- 
logue, carries the legitimate "he said," "he 
urged," "he encouraged," etc., to such dis- 
tracting extremes as "he frightened," "he 
anguished," "she informed," "he recognized," 
"he remorsed." Of late years there has de- 
veloped the fad of sajang "the heart, or soul, 
or head, of him" for "his heart," "his soul," 
"his head," etc. This variation from the usual 
has, in prose, a very limited field in which its 
advantage exceeds its damage, 

A mannerism of style is warranted if it so 
fits into a story that it is an integral and prac- 
tically unnoted part of it; otherwise it is a 
harmful factor. A better adapted mannerism 
could have gained the desired effect without 
making of itself an obtrusion. 

Fiction as a Vehicle. — There are two ways 
of writing a story. One is to write fiction 
only; the otlier is to combine fiction with 
something else. Readers like both and both 



DISTRACTIONS 65 

are legitimate, but the latter is of course not 
pure fiction; fiction is merely the vehicle for 
the other thing or things. One of the greatest 
evils among present-day fiction writers is the 
failure to make this distinction and keep it 
clearly in mind. Too often a writer does not 
realize that there is anything else mixed with 
his fiction; consequently his product is not 
straight or well-built fiction nor is the fiction 
part of it a carefully made vehicle for the 
other thing. 

To make fiction serve any end other than 
its own is very likely to weaken its value as 
fiction, and before a writer thus weakens it 
he should make very sure that the advantages 
gained from making it carry something else 
compensate for that weakening. If he wishes 
to give his reader, for example, some direct 
philosophy, well and good, but he should — 
and seldom does — weigh the attendant loss. 

There is a second distinction that should be 
made. When I say "plus something else" I 
mean phis something else that is added as a 
load is put upon a wagon, not something that 
comes to the reader as a result of the fiction. 
To say in a story "a man may prosper exceed- 
ingly on a policy of utter selfishness, but, hav- 



66 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

ing all his life taken without giving, in the end 
he gives for what he took" is putting a load 
on the wagon. To let the story itself say that, 
merely to tell a story that illustrates and 
brings home that truth without mentioning it 
specifically (unless through the mouth of a 
character), is only letting straight fiction per- 
form a natural office, though a natural office 
that can be overworked at the cost of a well 
balanced whole. The former is the easier 
and less artistic method, and far too many 
writers follow it far too often. Its evil is that 
of any "load" — it breaks the illusion, tending 
to make the reader think of the person who 
hands him this bit of philosophy, of himself, 
of the world in general, instead of the story 
world only. 

The present-day fad of opening a story with 
a bit of philosophy, though objectionable on 
another score, does little damage to the illu- 
sion, since it conies before the spell begins 
and may even serve as an intermediate step. 

Obtrusion of Author. — This is a crying evil, 
a serious damage to the illusion. Tiie author 
has no more business to appear concretely in 
his story than a playwright has upon the stage 
when his play is being acted. Once in ten 



DISTRACTIONS 67 

thousand times he may himself be sufficiently 
interesting to atone for the wreck of the 
story's spell; the other nine thousand nine 
hundred and ninety-nine times he is a mis- 
take, a bull in a china-shop. The following, 
all taken from submitted manuscripts, range 
from crude to subtle obtrusions: 

"At the time of which I wish to speak" 

"you must understand" 

"consider the case of John Holt. But first 
consider the environment" 

"see him" 

"and it is the correct word" 

"it is necessary to add, in explanation of 
this seeming paradox" 

"had, somewhat grumbingly, be it said," 

"he had, for instance, tried," 

"and disappears from this story," 

Each of these compels a reader to realize 
that some one is talking to him. You can't 
be carried away in a dream when conscious 
that some one is telling it to you. Sometimes 
the point is made that an author's obtrusion 
puts the reader on more intimate terms with 
him. What has that to do with fiction as 
such? If the author didn't obtrude himself, 
the reader would have no interest in intimacy 
or non-intimacy with him. If the author is 
the one out of ten thousand, all right; other- 
wise, not. 



68 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

If a writer must express philosophy or 
opinions specifically, let him use the legiti- 
mate device of the first-person narrative, tak- 
ing care that the narrator is cast in such 
character as to make these opinions natural 
to him. Or else baldly use fiction as vehicle 
only, making his story a conversazione. 

There is another legitimate device. Kip- 
ling ends a story with "I think he was right." 
But he begins that story with "When I was 
telling you of." In other words, he tells the 
story in an undeveloped frame or brackets. 
Partly by leaving the frame undeveloped and 
impersonal, his skill is sufficient to make you 
feel that it is not Kipling himself who talks 
to you, but some unknown participator in the 
action of the story or an onlooker. It is 
really, in effect, a first-person narrative with 
the privileges of such. 

First-person narratives, unless presented 
as addressed to a fictitious audience such as 
the narrator's children or grandchildren, of 
course permit a fairly free direct address to 
or at the reader, since the writer poses as the 
actual teller. Incidentally, however, it is not 
consistent with his telling what goes on inside 
the characters unless made plain to him as 
one of them. 



DISTRACTIONS 69 

As found in submitted manuscripts, the 
great majority of authors' obtrusions seem 
unconsidered, and are accompanied by the 
damage to be expected from walking in the 
dark. The remainder, almost without excep- 
tion, seem ill-considered. One exception out 
of a thousand instances is not a heavy 
average. 



CHAPTER VI 

CLEARNESS 

Anything that is is not clear to a reader 
either causes him to skip it and therefore miss 
part of the story's substance and effect, or else 
makes him puzzle. In either case the illusion 
suffers. If he puzzles, he has to use up atten- 
tion on a point the writer had counted on be- 
ing clear, his mind is on the puzzle, not 
obsessed by the spell; the story's flow is 
stopped, the reader is conscious of himself, 
his difficulty and limitations, perhaps also of 
the author as the cause of his troubles — in a 
word, the reader has got away. Every time 
you confuse him you lose him. Deliberate 
mystification is a writer's prerogative; hav- 
ing all his plans upset by mystification where 
none was expected or desired is a calamity. 

Author's Ostrich Habit. — Naturally enough, 
authors are inclined to a kind of reversed 
ostrich habit. If a point was clear to them 
when they wrote it, they take for granted that 

70 



CLEARNESS 71 

it must be clear to the reader. They forget 
that they have full knowledge of all that is or 
happens in their fiction, while the reader can 
know onlj'^ what comes to him from the 
printed page. Often when an editor points 
out an unclearness they argue with him, 
blissfully ignoring the fact that the editor is 
himself a reader and that the reader found it 
unclear. Possibly the author proves his case 
— that is, he points out other passages in the 
story which do clear up the unclearness if the 
reader remembers them and makes the cor- 
rect inferences and connections. The fact 
that, in the actual test, these passages failed 
to produce the intended results on the reader 
slides off the author like water off a duck. 
Still less does he get the idea that a reader 
shouldn't be distracted from the storj' by be- 
ing compelled to go into a more or less com- 
plicated reasoning process in order to get 
what should have been handed to him on a 
platter. Even if several editor-readers found 
the point unclear, he stands by his guns. 

Aside from the author's vastly superior 
knowledge of his material and intentions, 
many of his readers may be his mental infe- 
riors. Also many of them may not be so inter- 



72 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

I 

ested in his story as he is and so give it less 
close attention than he expects. Part of them 
habitually "skip" through a story and de- 
mand a plain and shining path. Certainly no 
one mind is exactly like another and all read- 
ers will not respond as does the author to any 
given set of stimuli if even a tiny loophole is 
left open. A rule given playwrights is that if 
it is essential to impress a basic point on the 
audience, the point must be made at least 
three times in the first scene. So extreme a 
rule is not needed for fiction, but the neces- 
sity of clearness, even on minor points, is no 
less pressing. 

It is a natural and common mistake to 
overestimate the average reader's interest 
and attention and his ability and willingness 
to solve puzzles when he sits down to read a 
story. A writer usually forgets that to the 
reader his is merely one story out of dozens 
or hundreds recently read, out of thousands 
and ten thousands total. The writer's friend- 
critics have a personal interest in him and a 
very special interest in his story that carry 
them smilingly over many obstacles; to the 
average reader the writer probably means 
nothing whatsoever personally — quite pos- 



CLEARNESS 73 

sibly his name at the head of the story was 
not even read — and the story is merely one of 
very many. Any special attention to it must 
be won by the writer's skill and careful work. 
Talbot Mundy, knowing in advance the 
general lines of this book, has furnished me 
from his voluminous reading with various 
quotations bearing on points covered, among 
them this from Quintillian: 

"Care should be taken, not that the reader 
may understand if he will, but that he must 
understand, whether he will or not." 

And from Whitman: 

"Nothing can make up for the lack of 

definiteness." 

Ambiguous Words and Sentences. — Any 
good text-book on English covers the subject 
and most writers would profit by the study 
thereof. If when they try a short story out on 
their friends they would ask for practical de- 
tailed criticism on such points as this, they 
would get laboratory results far more valu- 
able than the proverbially undependable 
criticism of friends on the story as a whole. 

Proper Names. — Be careful to give your 
characters names no two of which are similar. 



74 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

The reader meets them for the first time and 
has tiie task of identifying each name with 
the proper character whenever it occurs. 
Why confuse him with two characters named 
"Lowe" and "Rowe," "Towne" and 
"Browne," "Morgan" and "Mordan," or even 
"Hadley" and "Hatfield"? Yet many and 
many a manuscript contains this needless 
stumbling-block for readers. 

The same mistake is made in names of 
places, ships, and so on. 

Another maddening and very common 
practise among writers is to use sometimes a 
character's last name, sometimes his first. 
Even a short stoiy with only two or three 
characters can be made a needless omelette 
of confusion, for this bad habit is extended to 
include titles and nick-names or familiar 
forms of the full names. Consider "Doctor 
James Stanley," "Edward D. Gage" and 
"Captain John S. Tompkins." "Gage" is a 
lawyer and often called "Judge" by his inti- 
mates. "Tompkins' " lack of height earns 
him the usual "Shorty." The author uses 
some of each, possibly for the sake of "vari- 
ety," and the three characters become, to the 
reader, an army and hopelessly confused — • 



CLEARNESS 75 

"Stanley," "Ed," "Cap," "Gage," "Shorty," 
"Jim," "Judge," "John," "Doc," "Tompkins," 
"James," "Johnnie," "Edward." Such a con- 
fusion is alone enough to ruin the blissfully 
unconscious writer's story. For the simple 
reason that readers can only half know what 
is going on. Yet in practise it is a very com- 
mon mistake. 

Technical and Foreign Words; Classical, 
Historical and Fictional References and Allu- 
sions. — The confusion arises when a reader 
happens not to understand the word, even 
from the context, or to be unfamiliar with 
the reference. Writers seem to take it for 
granted that all readers will grasp the mean- 
ing without effort or delay. Or mystify delib- 
erately to air their culture. The warning 
seems silly when set down on paper but is 
warranted by the number of offenses in actual 
practise. 

Naming Characters Early. — Sometimes an 
effect of reality is gained by not at once nam- 
ing characters in a story, giving the reader as 
it were, the effect of looking down upon a new 
world whose figures are no more known to 
him than they would be at first sight in a real 
scene. Generally, however, a reader is likely 



76 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

to resent being left to follow, for even a few 
pages, the fortunes of a nameless person. In- 
clude particularly the narrator in a first-per- 
son story. 

Dialogue. — Over and over again an editor 
is compelled to go back over a passage of 
dialogue in manuscript and "count out" with 
finger or pencil until he finds a line that is 
definitely connected with a particular speak- 
er. The characters are not sufficiently indi- 
vidualized to be recognized from their lines, 
context fails to identify, the lines are not 
labeled with the speakers' names and the 
least flicker of attention leaves one lost at the 
end of a dozen or even half a dozen speeches. 
Sometimes the author himself gets lost and 
mixes or omits. An ordinary reader doesn't 
have to "count out" as does the editor — he is 
more likely to snort and pass on, with part of 
the stoi-y lost to him and its net register on 
him badly damaged. If he doesn't snort and 
pass on he stops to puzzle it out. Why injure 
a story by so crude an omission? 

Too Many Characters. — The heading is self- 
explanatory. All the characters in any story 
are utter strangers to the reader until he be- 
comes familiar with them; he can keep clear 



CLEARNESS 77 

in his mind only a limited number of new 
acquaintances all made in the course of a few 
minutes; the kind of writer who uses many 
characters is usually the kind who is unable 
to individualize them with any vividness. A 
novel or novelette gives greater scope, but iii 
a short story it may almost be given as a! 
general rule that the fewer the characters, the 
stronger the story, not counting characters 
used in blocks, such as mobs, armies, specta- 
tors. Structure and proportion, as well as 
clearness, are of course involved. 

Dialect and Slang. — Neither is familiar in 
all places or to all classes, and on the point of 
clearness both are to be condemned. Their 
advantages will be considered later. 

The stupidest blunder in handling dialect 
is to misspell a word without really changing 
its pronunciation, thus confusing the reader's 
eye yet gaining only the appearance of dia- 
lect — and the reader's irritation. 

Contradictions and Inconsistencies. — Their 
variety is infinite and their occurrence in sub- 
mitted manuscripts frequent beyond the be- 
lief of those who read only the corrected 
printed page. A woman changes the color of 
her eyes; with a conversation that could oc- 



78 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

cupy only one minute there is coincident 
action that couldn't possibly be compressed 
into five, or, very commonly, a bland lapse of 
even more time without any action; a six- 
shooter emits seven shots without reloading; 
of a party of fourteen, five turn back and ten 
remain; a character uses a word that would 
never be used by such a person in real life, 
or acts, without explanation, entirely at vari- 
ance with his nature as the author has pic- 
tured it; the hero acts on information he has 
not j'^et received; a man's name changes dur- 
ing the story; a woman opens a door already 
open; a character goes somewhere else with- 
out leaving or becomes present without arriv- 
ing. When you encounter such a break in a 
printed story doesn't it jar you out of the 
illusion, lessen your respect for the author, 
and therefore permanently damage his story's 
hold on you? 

There can be no general rule for correction. 
When not the result of sheer carelessness and 
indifference, such errors are due to the 
author's failure to visualize, to live his scenes 
himself. This failure in some cases is due to 
real inability or comparative inability, but in 
very many cases to attention so obsessed and 



CLEARNESS 79 

ridden by principles of plot, rules lor charac- 
ter drawing, regulations for niceties of style, 
application of technique in general and re- 
quirements of various magazines that there's 
no brain-force left for making the story 
world a really convincing and natural one in 
its all important details. 

Holding Reader to Correct Plot Line. — In 
other words, proportion and emphasis. Brief- 
ly stated, what is meant here is clearness of 
path for the reader through the incidents of 
the stoiy, so that his mind will follow or leap 
ahead only in the exact direction the author 
wishes for the fullest effectiveness of his 
story. This will be taken up in detail later. 

Simplicity. — The following from Schopen- 
hauer (thanks to Mr. Mundy) gives us the 
heart of the matter: 

"Nothing is easier than to write so that no 
one can understand; just as, contrarily, noth- 
ing is more difficult than to express deep 
things in such a way that every one must 
necessarily grasp them." 

Yet to most of those sending manuscripts 
to magazines simplicity, particularly simplic- 
ity in words and style, is very pointedly 
something to be avoided whatever else is 



80 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

done or left undone. The twin cause of this 
appalling idea, this curse stupidly laid upon 
American fiction, is the firmly rooted belief 
that literature must be an expression that is, 
first, unnatural, second, learned, recondite, 
even sophomoric. In its lowest and very com- 
mon form it is no more than the crude idea 
that editors must be very scholarly persons 
and that therefore they would scorn any 
manuscript that didn't have a lot of "big 
words" in it. The simple language of Shakes- 
peare, Homer, Virgil, the Bible and other 
really enduring classics loom before their 
eyes, but no, they follow the jack-o'-lantern 
of "big words." They have this excuse — much 
of the fiction published in magazines and 
books is fairly rotten with "big words," a re- 
flection on editors and reading public as well 
as writers. 

The hard practical argument against "dic- 
tionary words" is that most people find them 
difficult to understand or at least lack the 
definite, vivid, full connotation for them that 
they have for the simpler and more common 
words of our very rich language. Such words 
reduce the size of an author's fully apprecia- 
tive audience. Another point is that the 



CLEARNESS 81 

writer who doesn't know any better than to 
make a business of using them is very often 
himself lacking in an understanding of their 
finer shades of meaning. A third point is 
that, unless such words are part of his own 
every-day vocabulary he is being unnatural 
in using them and thereby ruins his chances 
of attaining real style or producing real liter- 
ature. Also he gives through them to his 
story an unnatural, artificial quality, an air 
of being forced. In the eyes of all those with 
a real understanding of real literature he 
makes of himself a plain darned fool. 

But can there be no great literature with- 
out simplicity? None that couldn't be greater 
with it. A straight line is the shortest dis- 
tance between two points; any deviation from 
it is lost motion, unnecessary; the best litera- 
ture contains no lost motion and nothing 
that is unnecessary. But is not a "big word" 
sometimes the straight line? Yes, but for one 
case of this kind there are twenty when it is 
not. Sometimes the author uses it for a 
simpler phrasing not sufficiently mastered to 
come to mind at need; sometimes it is neces- 
sary only because he has committed himself 
by some roundabout phrasing demanding it 



82 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

for completion; sometimes he commits him- 
self to it by following the inferior method of 
telling the reader what is inside a character 
instead of making it plain through what the 
character says and does and what other char- 
acters say and do to him. 

The final test for the use of "big words" is 
the nature of the material or ideas handled. 
In some cases they are necessary to a degree, 
sometimes to a great degree. But in practise 
the nature of the material is generally not 
correctly assayed, or is mishandled, or the 
need imagined. The ignorant use them 
through ignorance; for those with a good 
knowledge of words it is generally easier to 
use the "big word," the Latin derivative in- 
stead of the simpler Anglo-Saxon. 

Is it not therefore more natural and so bet- 
ter for this last class to use the "big w^ord"? 
That depends on why it is natural — or on 
whether it is natural or merely habitual. A 
writer may have come into the use of them, 
not by natural development but through de- 
liberate effort, a stunt for the sake of seeming 
learned or being impressive, so that their use, 
while easy to him, is merely the result of his 
having made of himself a kind of abnormal- 
ity — an artificial result of artificial talking 



CLEARNESS 83 

and method of thought. On the other hand 
is the far rarer case of him wliose mind nat- 
urally expresses itself through polysyllables, 
generally because of an education from books 
instead of people. I know one writer who 
spoke to no one for two years except for the 
barest necessities because when he used what 
to him was perfectly natural language the 
people he met thought he was "stuck up" or 
showing off. 

I do not know why Heniy James wrote as 
he did, but contrast the two following cases: 

I once shared an apartment with an ardent 
admirer of James and as I did not share his 
admiration we argued frequently. James 
came to New York while my friend was pre- 
paring a bibliography of his idol's works. 
There was some question as to several early 
articles or stories that had magazine but not 
book publication and my friend wrote for 
the simple information necessary. It could 
have been given amply and courteously in 
two or three sentences. The reply was ap- 
palling in its totally unnecessary complexity, 
length and creation of detail, so much so that 
my friend woke me up to show it to me and 
joined in my unholy glee. It was, surely, a 
natural expression, but why was it natural? 



84 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

And certainly it was not adapted to the 
nature of the material or idea. 

Now read the first one hundred and fifty 
words of A Coward by De Maupassant, even 
in translation, then write down the things 
you know about the character described in 
those few very simple words and you will be 
amazed at the length of the list. 

Consider that De Maupassant and his mas- 
ter Flaubert stand preeminently for unre- 
lenting search for "the one word" and that 
both of them are characterized by extreme 
simplicity of presentation. And is any char- 
acter of Henry James' so much more intri- 
cately drawn than "Madame Bovary"? 

Among more modern writers take Joseph 
Conrad. I am a Conrad "fan," but consider 
him, comparatively speaking, a poor work- 
man though a great artist. Here we have 
simplicity of words but not of expression in 
a general sense. I do not by any means fully 
understand most of his stories and I find that 
others are about equally at sea if they are 
honest or are cross-examined. In most of the 
qualities that make a great fictionist he 
stands in the front rank, but he is lacking in 
corresponding ability to simplify and clarify 
his thought, to make the proper abstraction 



CLEARNESS 85 

and selection of thought expressions. His 
content and gifts are so rich that even only a 
part of them registered on readers is suffi- 
cient to rate him a master, but the fact re- 
mains that he conveys only a part of what 
he has to say. Instead of a direct, clear-cut, 
simple path to his goal he gives the reader a 
maze of paths that is not lacking in blind 
alleys. 

Whatever be the generally accepted aca- 
demic philosophy of simple versus complex 
expression, it can not outface the fact that 
the minority of readers can not so fully un- 
derstand or appreciate complexity and that 
"with them the effectiveness of a story is 
thereby crippled. Certainly in practise there 
is crying need for the mastery that can say 
all yet say it simply. If, instead of straining 
for complexity, beginners would aim at sim- 
plicity, especially of words, they would not 
only come closer to writing both good maga- 
zine stories and good literature, but would 
find themselves able to "handle" greater and 
greater complexity of thought and with a 
precision and effectiveness that can not be 
equaled by the other method. 

Remember that the simple, cvery-day words 
are in almost all cases the stronger ones. 



86 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Repetition. — Before leaving the subject of 
clearness as a whole (it will come up again 
in connection with other subjects), a word 
might be ventured on repetition. The present 
horror of it is a badly exaggerated reaction. 
To repeat without due cause an unusual word 
or phrase in a short story, or a usual one too 
close to its first use, is a distraction and there- 
fore harmful to the illusion, but sometimes 
due cause is ignored. A story, all so clear to 
its author, presents hundred of facts with 
which the reader must familiarize himself. 
The easier you make this for him and the 
more you insure his getting all the points 
necessary to a foil appreciation of your story, 
the more fully will your story register on him. 
To present a vital point once so vividly that 
it is almost sure to register is best of all and 
correspondingly difficult to do, but keep your 
eyes open for cases where repetition, proba- 
bly not in exactly the same words, will ac- 
complish the same purpose nearly as well 
and perhaps more surely. 

Aside from clearness, in skilful hands 
repetition can become a most subtle and 
powerful instrument for dramatic and poetic 
effects of high literary quality. 



CHAPTER \11 

OVERSTRAIN 

A READER has just SO much of attention, in- 
terest and appreciation to give to any story 
and, to hold him in the illusion, it is of the 
highest importance not to wear him out be- 
fore you are through with him and not to use 
him up on minor points or on matters that 
should put upon him no strain whatever. 

Brevity. — Most of all, don't talk too much 
or too long. A story is never so dead as when 
buried in words. Most of the stories sub- 
mitted can be cut to advantage, often very 
heavily cut. The reader gets worn out wait- 
ing for soinething to happen — is bored by 
being told in a hundred words what he could 
have grasped in twenty. 

Do not feel that you must give the entire 
history of the hero's life in a short story; 
only a certain few incidents and facts have 
direct bearing and the remainder must be 
mercilessly cut out. Nor all the scenes and 
87 



88 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

action of any story. Make it your object to 
have as much as possible happen off-stage; 
what forces itself to the footlights will prob- 
ably belong there. 

Unclearnesses and Distractions. — Any un- 
clearness or ambiguity or any distraction is 
of course a profitless strain upon the reader. 
Don't compel a reader to reason out things 
that should be clear at a glance. Even the 
intentional unciearness of subtlety, though 
by no means a fault, must also be weighed 
as to disadvantage in strain. 

All the points covered in Chapter VI apply 
in this one. 

Sentence Length. — Vary it. If you can, 
vary it in accordance with variation in emo- 
tions of material, in desired effects on reader, 
but vary it in any case. The very monotony 
of a long succession of either long or short 
sentences is wearing. 

Don't drag a reader through a sentence so 
long that in following it he tires out before 
he can draw mental breath. 

Hold Reader to Correct Plot Line. — From 
first word to last, don't wear him out by let- 
ting him cover useless distance over false 
trails. 



OVERSTRAIN 89 

Classical and Other References. — In addi- 
tion to their dangers of distraction and un- 
clearness they force a reader, if they reach 
him, to picture or consider characters, events 
and scenes in addition to those of the story. 
They are of course justified in comparatively 
rare instances. 

Dialect, Archaic Speech, Slang, Foreign, 
Unusual and Technical Words. — All these 
offer obstacles to at least part of your au- 
dience. To a probable minority dialect is a 
delight, it is of course necessary to faithful 
realism, and it undoubtedly gives color. Yet 
many will not read a dialect story, their chief 
reason being the labor necessary to under- 
stand it. There are, too, those who con- 
sciously or unconsciously object to anything 
foreign, meaning by foreign anything differ- 
ent from their own. It is, for the author, a 
question of weighing advantages against dis- 
advantages. Archaic speech, as far as strain 
is concerned, is merely dialect. One writer 
makes the rule of using the speech of the 
time in which his story is laid for all periods 
following and including that of Elizabeth, 
using modern English for all earlier periods, 
his argument being that her reign approx- 



90 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

imately draws the line between speech that 
is now intelligible with little or no effort and 
speech that is not. Archaic forms of foreign 
tongues must be rendered to us in English, so 
fall under the same rule. 

Slang, too, is to be weighed as to advantages 
and disadvantages. It is perhaps more dif- 
ficult than in the cases of dialect and archaic 
speech to compute the proportion of readers 
to whom it will be sufficiently intelligible. 
On the other hand, it is generally in itself 
humorous and therefore of particular value 
when a humorous effect is desired; gives 
color; aids in characterization. 

The danger of foreign, unusual and techni- 
cal words is much the same on the score of 
strain as on the score of distraction and un- 
clearness. 

Relief Scenes. — At some point a reader's 
response to a demand on his emotions ceases 
and he grows callous to the appeal, but writ- 
ers often forget this fact and continue to de- 
mand long after he has lost his ability to 
respond. Perfection is to bring him to your 
climax at the full flood of response, but to do 
so requires careful handling. A steady, gen- 
tle increase of demand is best if you can be 



OVERSTRAIN 91 

absolutely sure of results, but a most useful 
safeguard is the use of relief scenes. If 
3'ou've kej^ed him up to a dangerously high 
pitch, give him a rest-scene before j'^ou add a 
further call upon his emotions — shift the 
scene or time and let him look a moment at 
a quiet landscape or gentle action. Make the 
change a decided one and you not only rest 
him but profit by the sharp dramatic con- 
trast between the relief scene and those fol- 
lowing and preceding it.* 

Frames or Brackets. — That is, a story 
within a story — a story one of whose charac- 
ters tells the main story. Its advantage is a 
gain in semblance of reality — if it is handled 
with sufficient skill. It verj'^ seldom is. Its 
disadvantage is an overstrain, in demanding 
of the reader that he form two illusions in- 
stead of one, and a consequent dividing and 
weakening of attention. Having accom- 
plished the task of getting clear in his mind 
one setting and one set of characters, he is 
forced to take up a new set of characters and 
probably a new setting, a double strain with- 
in the compass of a single story. If, as is 



♦Read De Quincey's On the Knocking at tJie Gate in 
"Macbeth." 



92 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

often the case, a character in the frame (or 
several characters) persists in interrupting 
the course of the inner, the real stoiy, con- 
flict or confusion of illusion is compounded. 

Most writers could profit by not attempting 
the doubly difficult task of a bracketed or 
framed story. Unless exceptional skill is 
brought to bear, the frame-stoiy is almost 
sure either to be too slight and unconvincing 
or to be made more or less convincing by 
being developed at such length that it is too 
serious an encroachment upon space needed 
for the real story. Yet it is a favorite attempt 
with those least able to handle it. 

Mystery Stories. — These must be consid- 
ered as a class by themselves, for their delib- 
erate intent is to make the reader strain at 
solving a puzzle or at following its intricate 
presentation and solution, and he turns to 
them at least partly for the mental stimulus 
involved. Yet overstrain is entirely possible. 
In fact, this type, by reason of its inherent 
intricacy and effort for the reader, demands 
particularly that he be not compelled to 
strain over points that are non-essential to 
the mystery proper. Unskilled or unfair 
writers sometimes intentionally add con- 



OVERSTRAIN 93 

fusions that are in no way necessary, and 
many a mystery story lessens its hold on 
readers by unintended unclearnesses or sug- 
gestions that mislead in unnecessary direc- 
tions and to no purpose. A reader may like 
to solve puzzles, but he most emphatically 
has the right to be at all times clear as to just 
what the puzzle is. 

Plot. — Unnecessary intricacy, of course, 
should be avoided in any type of story; the 
difficulty in a given case is to draw the line 
between necessaiy and unnecessary. But for 
any writer who has not made very decided 
progress toward mastering his art a fairly 
safe rule is to simplify his plot as much as 
possible. Perhaps that plot might be made 
more effective if developed in greater intri- 
cacy by skilled hands, but his hands are prob- 
ably not sufficiently skilful and the net re- 
sult of his attempt is likely to be a reader 
worn out by too many loosely knit threads 
of plot. As he grows in skill he will find that 
more and more intricate plots become — for 
him — simple plots and therefore to be under- 
taken with confidence. 



CHAPTER VIII 

CONVINCINGNESS 

Among writers of some experience the 
rejection of a manuscript for the quite com- 
mon reason that it is "not convincing" is often 
considered merely the editor's slipshod, 
evasive or ignorant excuse given in place of 
some mysterious real reason or through lack 
of any definite one. Sometimes it is, but, 
when honestly and intelligently given, it is 
the best possible reason for rejection. "Un- 
convincingness" means definitely and di- 
rectly that a story fails to impose its illusion 
— that it is merely words for the reader to 
look at, not a world for him to live in. It 
is the death-knell to the illusion. 

An editor's failure to give the reasons why 
it is "not convincing" may be due to his not 
having analyzed beyond the general effect, 
but it may be simply because imconvincing- 
ness is not easy to reduce to black and white 
and at best involves far more detail than his 

94 



CONVINCINGNESS 95 

time permits him to handle. It is as various 
and elusive as human nature itself, but the 
more common causes can be fairly well in- 
idicated. 

Improbabilities and Impossibilities. — Con- 
tradictions and inconsistencies have already- 
been considered in Chapter VI and are to be 
included under this head. Improbabilitj^ and 
impossibility are of course relative terms; 
a wishing-ring, while an utter impossibility 
in reality, is not even an improbability in a 
stoiy of fairies; if the reader accepts the 
major illusion of fairy-land there will be no 
difficulty to his accepting the minor illusion 
of a wishing-ring. But in a story of anything 
approaching real life absolute conformity to 
the laws and facts of real life is relentlessly 
exacted, and in stories dependent upon the 
acceptance of some fundamental premise, 
like the reality of fairy-land or the possibility 
of being transferred into the year 2022, there 
must be equally relentless conformity to the 
condition of the premise. 

I venture that not twenty per cent, of ac- 
cepted manuscripts are entirely free from 
slips of this kind when submitted. Acceptance 
has been in spite of them, each of them les- 



96 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

sened the chances of acceptance, and suffi- 
cient increase in their number would have 
meant rejection by any good magazine. 
There is, of course, the type of story that de- 
pends upon sheer quantity and tenseness of 
action to carry the reader along, despite all 
inconsistencies and improbabilities — the 
"dime novel" type, but all the strain of a 
bridge should not be upon a single girder. 

Improbabilities of Plot. — Too infinite in 
variety for any attempt at classification. 
The test in each case must reduce first to, 
'^Could it happen under the conditions?" 
And the writer — with help from his friends 
if they can be induced to help in this more 
practical fashion — must be the judge. Then 
he must narrow his question to, "Is it so likely 
to happen that the reader will accept it with- 
out hesitation?" Here is the real test and 
most writers fail to meet it largely because 
they have not, under the present system of 
teaching fiction, been trained to measure a 
story strictly through the reader's eyes. Many 
a time eveiy editor has been "caught" by an 
author who wrote back gleefully or vindic- 
tively "but it actually happened in real life!" 
Doubtless, but that doesn't mean anything. 



CONVINCINGNESS 97 

It may have happened a thousand times in 
real hfe, but if readers can not beheve it 
when they find it in a stoiy it is none the 
less an improbability in that story, a blow to 
convincingness, a check to the reader, an in- 
jury to the illusion. 

I have struggled so often, and so often 
vainly, to make writers realize this distinc- 
tion that I come to it now girded for the fray. 
Can't they see that a fact can not be a fact 
to a reader if he refuses to consider it a fact? 
Are they so hopelessly egotistic in their out- 
look on life that, because an improbable or 
unusual thing has occurred in their personal 
experience, it has thereby demonstrated its 
possibility to every one else? Are they so 
sickeningly conceited as to be sure that their 
presentation of the fact is as convincing to 
others as was the fact itself to them? Are 
they so imbecile as not to see that "proving" 
it to an editor after the reading of the story 
does not in any way prove it to the next or 
any reader while he is reading it? That, if 
it were published, they would never have 
the chance to prove it afterward in the case 
of readers as they had had in the case of the 
editor? That readers, ninety-nine times out 



98 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

of a hundred, would not even bother to chal- 
lenge the author on the point but would 
merelj'^ class him as "punk" and his story as 
"bunk" and go on to the next in the thou- 
sands of stories they read? 

Ah, no, it "really happened" somewhere! 
That ought to be enough for anybody, even 
if he doesn't know it happened and is con- 
vinced that it couldn't and knows mighty well 
that it is contrary to his own experience ! 

A leprechawn or a magic carpet can be 
made entirely convincing as part of the 
story's illusion by sufficient skill and in the 
proper setting, while the wonderful drive you 
and a half-dozen other witnesses saw John 
R, Smith make, on your club links a week ago 
Wednesday can, if put into a story, seem 
nothing whatever but a crude lie. Verily, 
truth is stranger than fiction — particularly 
good fiction. Good fiction makes a business 
of being a little less strange than truth some- 
times is, so that it can be believed. 

As a matter of fact, a "really happened" 
incident is likely to need twice the amount of 
"framing up" that an imaginary but more 
usual one would require. 

The true addict to this stupid and stubborn 



CONVINCINGNESS 99 

point of view scorns the simple device, used 
by his betters, of presenting the unusual as 
an unusual thing. No, it must be accepted as 
normal; it happened, youVe got to believe it. 
It doesn't occur to him that it was unusual to 
him, that he seized upon it as material for 
that veiy reason, that it would be equally un- 
usual to the characters in his story and that, 
really to duplicate or simulate life, he must 
make his characters register the same sur- 
prise and interest that he himself felt as a 
result of its unusualness. You can make a 
reader accept something as a remarkable oc- 
currence which he would utterly reject as a 
normal happening. 

For example, take the common case of 
the very feminine heroine who goes through 
the author's best hell of horror, desperation, 
bodily strain and general nerve-shock and, 
when rescued at its very climax, at once 
blandly regains almost entire poise and enun- 
ciates a veiy charming love-passage or goes 
cheerfully and competently about her other 
business. Most of us know that it is charac- 
teristic of the female sex to rise to an emer- 
gency strain and collapse or violently react 
the instant the demand is removed if not 



100 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

before. Consequently said heroine fails to 
convince. The author's logical correction is 
to make this heroine conform to general ex- 
perience, but, if he simply can not or will not 
change this part of his plot, why not give 
what convincingness he may by making her 
show at least some effects of the strain, or 
making clear that reaction had not yet come, 
or at least some such crude but compara- 
tively desirable device as "strangely 
enough"? 

Improbabilities of Character. — ^Like human 
nature, too various for specific classification. 
Most writers are capable of at least some un- 
derstanding of human nature and a weakness 
along these lines can be partly corrected by 
a combination of earnest study and sincere 
care. Failure to draw character convincingly 
is an absolute limit to success except in the 
lowest grades of fiction and in such uncom- 
mon types of story as are in no way depend- 
ent for interest upon fidelity to human 
nature. 

The wire-nerved heroine cited above is an 
example. Any expression, thought, emotion 
or act assigned to a character to whom, as 
drawn, it would not be natural helps destroy 



CONVINCINGNESS 101 

the reality of that character — the word 
"grievously" or "interrelation" in the mouth 
of an ignorant, illiterate character; a thought 
of the Virgin Mary in the mind of a Protest- 
ant during a crisis; a feeling of pity, not 
specified as unusual, in a pitiless person; 
fumbhng in an emergency by a man drawn 
as cool, clear-headed and ready. 

Lack of Characterization. — Unless a char- 
acter is given at least a semblance of individ- 
ualization he will be unlike any human in 
real life or else will be like some human 
viewed from a distant mountain-top or air- 
ship, in either case unconvincing as a "close 
up." Yet in the vast majority of submitted 
manuscripts characters are proper names 
and nothing more. This will be taken up in 
the chapter on "Characterization." 

Clanking Plots. — "The framework shows 
through," "you can hear the machinery go 
round," "artificial" — such plots are like the 
doggerel whose author does violence to both 
content and expression in order to get at the 
ends of lines words that approximate a 
rhyme. Lack of plot is almost a synonym. 
Instead of building a plot that is the natural 
result of character, conditions or conflicting 



102 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

forces, the author draws at will upon the uni- 
verse at large for whatever elements will lend 
what he considers strength and effectiveness. 
Since the law of cause and effect holds in 
real life, such a plot is unconvincing. In 
reading even published stories haven't you 
often found something said or done that was 
obviously put into the story, not for its in- 
trinsic or relative value, but solely for the 
plot-purpose of making other things connect 
and keep moving? And what is the effect 
upon your belief in the story, upon your il- 
lusion? 

Hack Plots. — I've forgotten who first said 
that there are only seven — or is it nine or 
five? — plots in the world, but, whoever he 
was, he's done a good deal of damage. With 
that hopeless dictum looming before their 
eyes it is not to be wondered at that many 
writers strive half-heartedly or not at all for 
originalitj'^ of plot. Add this to the majority's 
lack of invention, our ingrained habit of 
copying and a tendency to iake rather than 
make and you can see why an editor can re- 
ject at a glance a large proportion of sub- 
mitted stories. Like any other reader, he 
has very thoroughly learned some scores of 



CONVINCINGNESS 103 

plots or plot variations and doesn't need to 
read them any more. Usually the author 
who turns in a hack plot is the author who 
has little to offer except plot. And cfuite 
often he answers a rejection for hack plot by 
quoting "there are only five plots in the world 
anyway." If that is so, five is enough to en- 
able better writers to write better stories. 

The patent objection to hack plots is that 
they have outworn, with all but the newest 
and most elemental readers, the power to 
hold in illusion, therefore demanding an ex- 
tra amount of excellence in other factors. 
There is also the objection that this very repe- 
tition of a formula identified wdth fiction, 
particularly poor fiction, gives them at once 
the flavor of fiction instead of real life, and 
successful illusion is thus made extremely 
difficult. 

As a lonely little plea in behalf of wearied 
editors, couldn't you arrange, when you wish 
to shoot or stab a character without remov- 
ing him entirely, to wound him somewhere 
else than in the shoulder? The bullet that 
proved merely to have glanced off the skull 
is also rather overworked. And must you 
turn for help to overheard conversations? 



104 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Coincidence. — Coincidence is such a favor- 
ite device for attaining a hack pot, a clanking 
plot and improbability in general that it calls 
for a separate and emphatic warning. A 
reader's credence for coincidences is strictly 
limited, especially if they are presented as 
matters of course. 

Hack Style. — Objectionable for the same 
reason as hack plot. The inevitable connota- 
tion of hack words and phrases is of the 
"writing game," of the printed page, of stor- 
ies sold for money, not of real life — too "mag- 
aziney" to be successful in holding illusions 
in which magazines can have practically no 
place. Each hack phrase, moreover, is a lost 
opportunit}'^ for a right phrase that would 
have added to effectiveness. Also, readers 
are just plain tired of them. 

Frames or Brackets and First-Person Nar- 
ratives. — Guard against letting the frame- 
story character who tells the real story talk 
so long, fluently and perfectly that readers 
will note the impossibility of his performing 
such a feat in real life. First-person narra- 
tives, not in a frame, generally avoid this im- 
possibility by having the narrative written 
instead of spoken; otherwise they run the 



CONVINCINGNESS 105 

same danger. Most of all, don't let the nar- 
rator abandon his own speech for that of the 
author himself. He generally does. 

Dialect, Slang, Foreign Words. — All these, 
rightly used, tend toward convincingness of 
color and character, but their effectiveness is 
often measured by suggestion rather than 
quantity. Broad Scotch dialect at full strength 
will give a very Scotch atmosphere, for exam- 
ple, but many readers will refuse to enter 
that atmosphere or will become lost in it if 
they do enter. Often idiom is a more effec- 
tive device than dialect. 

Ignorance of Material: Mistakes. — ^There is, 
heaven knows, just ground for the belief that 
writers are given to writing of things with 
which they are not sufficiently familiar. In- 
stead of using the material they know best, as 
a class they are too prone to select the ma- 
terial they'd like to know about but don't. 
Also to feign a scholarliness they don't pos- 
sess or to attempt a style they have not 
mastered. 

Lack or loss of faith in the author is as 
great a catastrophe as lack or loss of belief 
in the story. Irritation against him is still 
more fatal. If you have any doubt, an edi- 



106 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

tor's mail would dispel it. Nothing brings so 
many or such bitter protests from readers as 
a mistake in handling local color. Mark that 
well, you who "take a chance" because you 
think you can — and often do — "get away with 
it." Not only do you underestimate the irrita- 
tion, sometimes amounting to a virulence that 
remembers you and follows you with hostility 
through your other stories, but your ignor- 
ance of setting, local color, material blinds 
you to the infinite possibility for unconscious 
mistakes that are instantly detected by those 
who know and make you ridiculous in their 
e3^es. 

Your dialect, slang and foreign quotations 
gain you no color if you make mistakes in 
them. Classical, historical and fictional ref- 
erences, or "big words" in English, if incor- 
rectly used, give you no reputation for schol- 
arliness. Having your villain run lightly 
away with more dollars in gold or dust than 
he could lift from the ground or using an 
"automatic revolver" does not impress read- 
ers with your knowledge of what you write 
about. Giving Brazilians Spanish as their na- 
tive tongue produces very unlocal color. A 
negro strain in a pure-blooded Creole shows 
no knowledge of types. 



CONVINCINGNESS 107 

Add to these the mistakes considered in the 
chapter on "Distractions," add all the other 
mistakes of which the uninformed human 
brain is capable, and then take up your heavy 
burden of becoming thoroughly familiar with 
the material you use in stories. A month or 
two in a locality will not give to any save a 
Kipling sufficient familiarity for safety. 
Most writers think it will. And, whatever you 
do, don't fool with fire-arms or with anything 
pertaining to ships until you have become a 
real authority! I speak from bitter experi- 
ence; editor, as well as writer, becomes the 
target for almost venomous ire. And no de- 
tail is too tiny for detection and wrath. The 
picture of a grizzly bear on a magazine cover 
brought a vicious indictment because, while 
a grizzly has six toes, not five, he does not 
show the sixth toe especially when in the 
position depicted. 

The convincingness of a story as a whole, 
then, is dependent upon many detailed fac- 
tors and there is some excuse for the editor 
who does not give the analyzed reasons for 
his verdict of "unconvincing." 

Such a weakness is due, on one hand, to 



108 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

ignorance, deliberate indifference or almost 
criminal carelessness or, on the other hand, 
to failure to visualize clearly from the point 
of view of the reader. The most practical 
remedy, for both classes of causes, is, aside 
from the writer's own efforts, a fundamental 
change in teaching methods, putting far more 
emphasis upon training writers to habitual 
and very anxious consideration of the read- 
er's actual reactions to every least stimulus 
in a story. 



CHAPTER IX 

HOLDING THE READER 

While most points that bear here fall more 
directly under other headings, some defin- 
itely belong in this chapter. And, though I 
know of no recipe for being interesting, there 
are certain things that may be of help to that 
effort. 

Being Dramatic. — All stories, to be inter- 
esting, I think, must be dramatic, in the 
broader sense of the word, both in style and 
in selection and recombination of material. 
The very demand for unity and structure is 
a demand for the dramatic, the dramatic 
quality being largely a matter of position and 
contrast, and a baldly unemotional or matter- 
of-fact style can be strongly dramatic 
through its contrast with the emotional ma- 
terial handled. However, lest I be confound- 
ed by the philosophers, I'll discard "Being 
Dramatic" .and attempt instead, suggestions 
109 



110 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

as to "being interesting," not with any idea of 
covering the subjects completely but rather, 
(as in much of this book), calling attention to 
points on which writers prove themselves 
particularly weak in actual practise and 
which seem to call for more attention in 
teaching methods. 

Suspense. — The chief warning needed is 
not to spoil it after you've secured it. Over 
and over again a writer ruins his reader's 
suspense by betraying the plot in advance and 
making a surprise impossible. Sometimes it 
is inadvertent, but often it is deliberately 
done by at least a general statement or hint 
of outcome prefaced with some such phrase 
as "little did I know then that," "could he 
have known," "in the light of what followed 
there was no need for my next step," etc., or 
even more baldly betraying, say, the outcome 
of an entire book whose interest is at least 
partly based on whether hero wins heroine, 
by such as "Now, with Nita and our children 
sitting by me as I write, my doubts seem fool- 
ish ones." 

To me one of the most amazing faults in 
the entire repertoire is the flat betrayal of 
plot by the chapter headings. Why do it? Is 



HOLDING THE READER 111 

it merely a slip due to concentration on the 
really nerve-racking task of choosing an in- 
teresting and pertinent title for the chapter? 
Or is the habit of not measuring by the read- 
er's reactions so strong that in so prominent 
and spectacular a place a writer does not 
even note that he has advertised in advance 
to readers the verj-^ thing he should be trying 
to keep as a surprise? 

Surprises. — Be sure they are legitimate. It 
is one thing to shape a story so that the 
reader will expect other than what is to hap- 
pen, but quite another for you to tell him def- 
initely that he is to expect the other. Yet 
some writers do this. 

Mystery. — Naturalh% play upon human 
curiosity and the human hunting-instinct 
whenever opportunity offers, but, as in the 
case of surprises, be sure your mystery struc- 
ture and detail play fair with the reader. 
Here, too, you may give him false scents to 
follow, for he accepts them as part of the 
game, but, to change the figure, be sure that 
the ladder by which the goal is finally 
reached has no rungs missing. And in heav- 
en's name don't fog your story with the need- 
less mysteries of careless unclearness and 



112 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

confusion when nothing but irritation is to be 
gained by it. 

Overstrain. — Already covered. But some 
of its points demand extra attention for the 
sake of dramatic effect. 

Light and Shade. — Their proper use is es- 
sential to mastery of dramatic effect. Just as 
a square of black on a white sheet stands out 
far blacker and stronger than on a black one, 
just so does a strong scene stand out stronger 
if preceded and perhaps followed by a quiet 
scene than if merely one in a succession of 
strong scenes. Such a succession, properly 
handled for cumulative effect and steady rise 
to a climax, may as a whole be stronger than 
an alternation of strong and quiet, but such a 
succession is itself a unit and as such subject 
to the general law. There is always the dan- 
ger of overstrain in its use. 

The above applies, of course, to the ele- 
ments within a scene, in the make-up of a 
character, or in anything else. For example, 
the traits of a character all good or all bad 
are not so vivid as those of a character partly 
good and partly bad — nor is the character so 
natural. 

The element of unexpectedness in the sense 



HOLDING THE READER 113 

of particularly sudden surprise is extremely 
effective by reason of the sharp contrast 
involved. 

Repression. — Often more effective than ex- 
pression of emotion, for the fundamental rea- 
son, particularly in the case of emotion felt 
by a character, that, however strong the emo- 
tion, repression means the addition of some- 
thing sufficiently stronger to master it and 
of a struggle for the mastery, even though 
neither is definitely described in the story. 
There is contrast between emotion and will, 
between the expression to be expected and 
the absence of it, perhaps between one char- 
acter's repression and another's lack of it. In 
the case of repression by the author in the 
general handling of a scene an advantage lies 
in his giving to each reader opportunity to 
fill out the emotion in whatever way is most 
satisfying and natural to each from the mere / 
skilful stimulus furnished by the author. If 
this advantage seems slight, consider the 
drawings for an illustrated story. In how 
many cases does the artist's conception of 
characters, scene and expression coincide 
with that of a reader? Supposing it were 
possible for the artist to furnish only such 



114 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

suggestions as would enable each reader to 
fill out a picture in accordance with his own 
conception, would not each reader find it 
more satisfying? Incidentally, would it be 
a higher form of art? 

Also there is enough of the Anglo-Saxon in 
our national character to implant in perhaps 
most of us an impulse to run away from too 
free expression of emotion. A reader's im- 
pulse to run away from a story does not add 
to its effectiveness. 

Certainly repression of emotion in the 
sense of condensing the number of words 
used in expression could be practised to great 
advantage by the majority of writers. 

But, first, last and always, remember that 
repressing emotion should seldom mean an- 
nihilating. Perhaps the correct idea is shown 
by contrasting a spiral spring compressed to 
its least space and greatest potential force 
with the same spring spent from being 
sprung, or with the absence of a spring. 

Omitting Scenes. — A story is at bottom a 
selection of certain bits of material from an 
almost infinite number of bits or, put the 
other way, the rejection of all material except 
the salient bits. Dramatic effect is often in- 



HOLDING THE READER 115 

creased by keying the process of selection and 
abstraction to a more rigid scale, even reject- 
ing comparatively salient bits. For example, 
a whole scene, though fitting into the story's 
development, may lend greater effectiveness 
to the whole by being inferred instead of en- 
acted on stage. 

Condensation. — It is safe to say that many 
writers could make most of their stories not 
only more dramatic but more effective in 
general by greater condensation. Those of 
you, especially, who aim for popularity rather 
than the judgment of posterity should re- 
member that v.e live in an age of motion-pic- 
tures, that one of their chief characteristics 
is speed, and that our youth are growing up 
with that speed more or less fixed in their 
minds as a standard for all narrative or ex- 
pository art. What will they, consequently, 
demand of fiction? Are they becoming im- 
patient of what we have considered the nor- 
mal speed of fiction narrative? Just as they, 
and perhaps we older ones, are already 
inclined to impatience over Cooper, Scott and 
Dickens, perhaps because steam and electric- 
ity have keyed us to a faster gait. Do you not 
find boys who will throb over a movie of The 



116 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Last of the Mohicans or The Three MuskS' 
teers, but who can not be induced to wade 
through these stories in book form as you and 
I so gladly waded? Is it merely that youth 
welcomes the quicker path and that these 
same youths will in more mature years turn 
to the more leisurely presentation? Even so, 
a slower speed may be losing them as 
audience while they are ripening sufficiently 
to prefer it. 

On the other hand, do motion-pictures 
overfeed us with speed so that we turn with 
relief to the more leisurely methods of 
fiction ? 

I venture no final conclusion, but certainly 
the narrative art as a whole moves faster than 
it did twenty or even ten years ago. Here is 
opportunity for some college classes in fiction 
or psychology to contribute exceptionally 
valuable data through laboratory or field ex- 
periments covering at least a part of the 
ground. 

Meanwhile there is no doubt that, by either 
old or new standard, most writers would 
profit by more condensation. There is no 
surer way of boring a reader than by talking 
too much, and even honey or strong drink can 



HOLDING THE READER 117 

be diluted until it has neither strength nor 
flavor. And remember, class-rooms, in judg- 
ing this point from published stories, that the 
editor has frequently done the writer's con- 
densing for him because of the story's need 
or the limitations of space. 

Short vs. Long Words and Sentences. — Re- 
member that in tense moments or under ex- 
treme emotion most men resort to short, sim- 
ple, Anglo-Saxon words and brief sentences. 
Remember that therefore short words and 
sentences are likely to be in themselves more 
tense and dramatic and, though not so gener- 
ally, more emotional. 

Remember, too, the need of avoiding 
monotony from any word- or sentence- 
length. 

Handling, Setting, Color and Character. — 
Holding the reader is essentially a matter of 
not being dull and there is no sovereign cure 
for dullness, but the following device will go 
a long way toward avoiding it. 

Instead of giving the reader setting and 
local color in discouragingly large pieces, 
weave them into the action. An old device, 
to be sure, but one much too little used. In- 
stead of describing a vast plain, let a charac- 



118 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

ter ride over it, speak of it or think of it, thus 
at the same time developing scenery, charac- 
ter and action for the reader. If you wish to 
picture the plain's vegetation, incorporate 
some of it as even a very minor plot-factor — 
have the rider pluck some of it, have his 
horse's progress impeded by it, hide another 
character behind it. There are a thousand 
ways of thus accomplishing more than one 
thing at once. But remember, too, that a 
reader must be given his general bearings as 
soon as he enters a story. 

Hack Work. — Anything in j^our story, ex- 
cept material itself, that has been used until 
threadbare by countless writers before you is 
"hack stuff" and has small chance of holding 
your reader, for the perfectly simply reason 
that he's tired of it before he reads it. 
Whether a matter of plot or diction and no 
matter how good it was in the beginning, it is 
a handicap that only a master can turn into 
an asset. Avoid, however, the opposite ex- 
treme of being different to such an extent or 
so clumsily that your effort is obvious. I 
know of no recipe for avoiding "hack stuff" 
■ — no more than for avoiding lack of individu- 
ality and other little matters of that kind, but 



HOLDING THE RE.\DER 119 

surelj'^ a writer of even moderate discernment 
can detect and correct this fault in some de- 
gree by taking pains to note and avoid the 
elements that recur most frequently in poor 
or mediocre fiction. Unfortunately most 
"writers begin by copying (unconscious copy- 
ing, while more ethical, is harder to correct 
than is deliberate copying) and your natural 
copier is not likely to be overly intelligent in 
choice of models. 

Titles and Chapter Headings. — This sub- 
ject is too large for discussion here, since it 
involves the psychology of both fiction and 
advertising, but three rules can be given : (1) 
Aim at the very heart of the subject-matter 
for your general title idea; (2) don't let them 
betray too much in advance, but make them 
"lure"; (3) select chapter heads with almost 
as much care as titles, for they are of great 
psychological importance. 



CHAPTER X 

PLEASING THE READER 

Divide all readers into majority and minor- 
ity. It is legitimate and profitable to aim at 
either. Now make your big decision, and it 
is a very big one. At which of these will you 
aim? If the majority, study and analyze their 
tastes and reactions. If the minority, study 
and analyze the majority first; then study the 
minority. Their tastes are not necessarily 
opposite, but they are necessarily different, 
also various; the minority are a unit only in 
being different from the majority. But you 
can reach them fairly well merely by giving 
them the opposite of what the majority like. 
Your problem is whether you can get a bet- 
ter slice of attention from the majority of 
readers in competition with the majority of 
writers or from the minority of readers in 
competition with a minority of writers. 

Majority vs. Minority. — Your own peculiar 
120 



PLEASING THE READER 121' 

gifts and inclinations in writing should be the 
deciding factor, but you can make no intelli- 
gent decision until you really have some un- 
derstanding of the two groups between which 
you must decide. If j^ou write for money 
only, study them till you have your human- 
nature formulas at your finger-ends and 
almost automatically apply them to every 
idea, expression or bit of material that 
comes up for consideration. If you write for 
art only, study them just the same (you'll be 
getting the best material in the world), but 
instead of turning the results into formulas 
turn them into your understanding. If you 
write according to the method — commonly 
called inspiration and attributed to what we, 
sometimes hastily, term genius — of merely 
exploding yourself into the world at large 
without deigning to look at said world, con- 
tinue to explode as usual, but when your 
creation is all created go over it with pencil, 
blue-pencil and waste-basket in the light of 
knowledge and understanding of whichever 
audience you prefer as target, and make very, 
very sure that what you inspired into your 
story is going to reach that audience just as 
you intended it should and is going to please 



122 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

and interest them as much as you fondly 
imagined. 

For, you see, you are almost certainly not 
a genius. A genius makes his own rules and 
they are better for his case than are any rules 
other people can make for him. If any genius 
is by strange chance reading this book I hope 
he will stop and read no other in place of it. 
He will almost surely do far better without. 
God knows the world is too full of rules for 
writing fiction and of people who allow the 
rules to ride them out of all ability to use the 
rules. The proper function of rules is that of 
mere guides and suggestions to be weighed, 
analyzed, and then either discarded or so 
thoroughly absorbed that their application 
during the act of creating is automatic and 
subconscious and their use as tests after 
creating is no more than the author's own 
spontaneously critical view of what he has 
written. Nothing in this book is intended to 
hang like a "Do it now" motto on the author's 
wall; its one intention is to give him a fresh 
point of view and the kind of foundation that 
will enable him to make liis own rules out of 
his own understanding. 

In this book we are concerned primarily 



PLEASING THE READER 123 

with the majority of readers and, unless oth- 
erwise specified, have in mind his likings and 
reactions. 

Choice of Material and Theme. — ^The ma- 
jority of readers would probably value their 
lives above any other selfish consideration — 
life in the sense of existence but also in the 
sense of health and vigor. Next, such things 
as love, success, wealth, happiness, uplift, 
knowledge, beauty and contest, not necessar- 
ily in the order named. These, or combina- 
tions of these, such as success in a contest 
for life or love or wealth, offer a safe begin- 
ning in selecting material or a theme for fic- 
tion. These are the fundamental things vital 
to human beings. The further you get from 
them, the more must you approach appeal to 
a minority. (The majority, of course, does 
not always consist of the same individuals, 
but merely of most individuals, and shifts in 
membership more or less with each shift of 
point at issue.) 

Happiness. — Human beings would on the 
whole rather be happy than unhappy. There- 
fore happy themes and pleasant material are 
surest for pleasing the majority. Generally 
speaking, people read fiction for entertain- 



124 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

ment and prefer feeling happier rather than 
unhappier when they lay down a story. 
Sympathy, morbidness and a desire to play 
with the fire of fear, horror and suffering 
give rise to contrary tastes in fiction, the 
drama and other forms of art, but the gener- 
al, fundamental desire is for happiness. 

What is happiness? I attempt no defini- 
tion. One man knows probably as well as any 
other. All of us can watch other human be- 
ings and have a very fair idea of what makes 
most of them happy. 

Generalizations on human nature are un- 
safe but, to take an extreme case, a story of 
cripples, deformities and disease, unless this 
material is very strongl}'^ counteracted with 
success, love, sympathy, etc., would please 
none but abnormal readers. Deformities 
and disease offend the inherent love of life, 
health and beauty. Again, the majority pre- 
fer non-tragic stories, preferring to think of 
life rather than death, of success rather than 
unsuccess. 

Let rae make it emphatically plain that I 
am attempting no such foolish tiling as a cata- 
logue of material for fiction. My one purpose 
is to lead the writer into doing what he so 



PLEASING THE READER 125 

often fails to do — consider his material very 
carefully from the point of view of the prob- 
able reactions of human beings instead of 
choosing it according to God knows what silly 
rules for writing fiction or merely repeating 
the material and themes he has seen that 
other writers use. 

A few stray points may be of some service : 

The beginners and the very young are as a 
class the writers most given to tragedy and 
morbidness. As they develop they generally 
change to more cheerful material. 

The percentage of tragic and morbid stories 
would dwindle rapidly if it were not for the 
empty writer's desire to "do something 
strong" and his inability to get strength in 
any other way. 

The horror story has its legitimate place, 
as has any story dealing with human emo- 
tions, which are the very heart-food of fiction 
and of unfailing interest to the human read- 
ers. Suffering, unsuccess, death, all the un- 
pleasant things you please, are good fiction 
material. But, if I may make the distinction, 
they are good, not because they hurt, but be- 
cause, like happier things, they appeal to the 
readers' human sympathy and understanding. 



126 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Since I shall not give it space anywhere 
else, the question of realism versus idealism 
may be dragged in here from the point of 
view of the readers' lildng. When I first 
came to New York, in youthful throes over 
this and similar momentous questions, I had 
the good fortune of a letter to William Dean 
Howells and, trembling at this God-given op- 
portunity, broached my chief problem. Mr. 
Howells was incapable of anything but gen- 
tleness, and the process of his gentleness in 
my case was so kindly that its words are no 
longer clear in my memory, but the gist of his 
reply is very clear indeed. He told me to go 
ride on a Fifth Avenue bus and write down 
whatever caught the attention of a young man 
fresh to New York. I pass on to others that 
very excellent advice. Go ride on a bus or 
sit still somewhere and write about whatever 
catches your attention. The question of 
whether the result is realism or idealism is 
one you can afford to forget, for the main 
point is that you should follow your own par- 
ticular gift for seeing life. The only attention 
you need give the result is consideration of 
its appeal to people in general, changing or 
not changing the result according to the rela- 



PLEASING THE READER 127 

tive value you assign to popularity and art, 
remembering that the two need not be mu- 
tually exclusive goals and that either realism 
or idealism finds response in a sufficient 
number of readers. 

The Philosophy of Fiction. — Doubtless 
there are a hundred explanations of the fun- 
damental appeal of fiction to human beings. 
That given by George Henry Lewes seems 
particularly illuminating and practically 
helpful. 

It is, in substance, as I recollect it: 

Fiction appeals to man because it enables 
him to attain vicariously, through the charac- 
ters in the story world, the perfection and suc- 
cess he can not attain in real life, and to live 
for a while in a world of his own choosing 
instead of in the real world that has been 
thrust upon him. 

The first part of this definition does not 
seem to apply to realistic and analytical fic- 
tion, though the second part does, nor does 
any of the definition seem to take sufficient 
account of the reader's enjoyment of the ex- 
ercise of his sympathies or the broadening of 
his understanding and knowledge or of his 
sheer joy in artistic excellence. This appar- 



128 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

ent failure to cover the ground, however, is 
not so real as it seems. Joy over artistic ex- 
cellence is essentially a critic's feeling, not a 
reader's — the joy of a technician, not of a 
recipient, of a cook, not of a diner. And if 
you will apply my distinction between fiction 
and the various things for which fiction is a 
mere vehicle, the contributions to understand- 
ing and knowledge are not a part of fiction 
itself and therefore need not be covered by 
the definition. The exercise of the reader's 
sympathies may also be accounted for by 
strict application of this distinction; or the 
"vicarious perfection and success" of the def- 
inition may be broadened to a comparison of 
the reader's own life with lives of the story 
people, better here, worse there, either stimu- 
lating variety and satisfaction or affording 
the vicarious improvement of condition. 

But, whether or not you consider the defini- 
tion all inclusive, there is in it a fundamental 
idea whose practical application would go far 
toward winning for most writers a far strong- 
er and deeper hold on readers. Sophomoric 
critics and writers may be inclined to sweep 
it off the boards, since it both deals with fun- 
damentals and undermines some habitual 



PLEASING THE READER 129 

angles of criticism, but most submitted manu- 
scripts and perhaps most published fiction 
would be much stronger if the writers thereof 
had made intelligent application of an intelli- 
gent understanding of this principle. Perfec- 
tion and success have in them the element of 
completeness, and completeness is a funda- 
mental desire of the human being, partly be- 
cause of the pleasant restfulness of its 
attainment. 

I do not say that every story should reek 
with success and perfection, but I do say that 
before you even partly eliminate these fac- 
tors you should have an intelligent under- 
standing of what you are doing and should 
sacrifice them only for such other factors or 
elements as you are sure will more than com- 
pensate in the particular case. 

Also I say, without hesitation or qualifica- 
tion, that, in the type of story containing little 
or no fundamental appeal other than a march 
of events and the success of a more or less 
perfect hero or heroine (the type that in- 
cludes the large majority of submitted manu- 
scripts) the application of this principle 
means an incalculable increase in effective- 
ness. In other words, if the presentation of 



130 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

success and perfection constitutes a funda- 
mental appeal to readers, see to it that you 
give these things in rich measure unless you 
compensate fully for their absence or partial 
absence. 

Note that these elements are given lavishly 
in the "dime-novel" type of story. This is 
probably the lowest type of all (not because 
of the superabundance of action, but because 
of unnaturalness and all-round poor work- 
manship), yet its audience is huge and its 
hold on them tremendous. And if you think 
this audience is limited to the unsophisticated 
and the very young, you are vastly mistaken ; 
that hold is too fundamental for a majority 
of even our cultured classes to escape from 
if it is given fair opportunity. To advance 
exciting and abundant action as the sole 
cause for this hold, as is commonly done, does 
not sufficiently account for it. The proof is 
that practically none of these stories is will- 
ing to trust to action alone for popularity. 
They almost always include another factor. 
And that factor is the double one of the suc- 
cess and perfection of the hero. The authors 
of such stories may include this factor only 
because they have seen others do so and may 



PLEASING THE READER 131 

not analyze bej^ond "people like it," but in 
that analj^sis they are thinking straighter and 
truer than are most of the learned and schol- 
arly exponents and critics of the writing art 
who lose themselves, their goal and their fol- 
lowers in a maze of artificial regulations and 
meaningless formalities. 

Reality. — To preserve balance, let us leap to 
the opposite point of view and review in our 
minds what was said in the chapter on con- 
vincingness. For the reader's pleasure in 
vicarious success and perfection to have 
soundness and stability, or for any other fic- 
tion purpose I can conceive, the story world 
must be a reproduction of our real world or 
of a modified real world consistent within 
itself. Part of a reader's fiction enjoyment 
lies in his familiarity with things presented, 
in finding things in their proper place, in the 
vanity of "I know that already." That a hero 
should attain remarkably complete success is 
acceptable to our reason because such success 
is frequently attained in real life. But a hero 
made remarkably perfect in all respects is 
likely to be too much for our common sense 
and to break the story's hold on us. "There 
ain't no such animile;" we know it, and, how- 



132 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

ever much the joys of vicarious perfection 
may lure us along through the story, the illu- 
sion is seriously weakened. 

The obvious remedy is a balanced middle 
course. 

Giving Characters Strong Appeal. — In fol- 
lowing this middle course the need in fiction 
to-day, aside from the dime-novel type, is 
more emphasis on the perfection element, 
not less. (Incidentally, it would help charac- 
terize a hero, and an appalling percentage of 
submitted manuscripts lack even that 
amount of characterization.) Give your hero 
or heroine sufficient faults and weak points 
to make him as human and fallible as you 
please, but give him also the strong elemental 
appeal of being close to the limit of human 
perfection in one or two traits of character, 
or phj^sical or mental characteristics, or along 
one or possibly two lines of ability. Unless, 
of course, you are fully prepared to counter- 
act the loss of this valuable asset with other 
elements. A sadly large proportion of 
would-be writers are not thus prepared, and 
many a story by a skilled author could have 
been improved by an understanding use of 
this element. 



PLEASING THE READER 133 

The same principles apply in less degree 
to minor characters. Villains, of course, aim 
at perfection in evil and their success gener- 
ally must cease at whatever point will render 
the hero's success most effective, but in their 
case the conflict between naturalness and 
success-perfection is often easily avoided by 
the simple and effective device of giving your 
villain a quite human allowance of com- 
mendable or pleasing perfections, leaving the 
net villain-product as evil as you please — 
the engaging villain, the fascinating rascal, 
the merely human trouble-maker. 

The usual fundamental compensation for 
a story's lack of perfection and success appeal 
is the appeal to the reader's sympathy with 
elements similar to those in himself or his 
life, including the appeal to his sj^mpathy for 
those suffering or enjoying as he has done. 
Personally I'm rather inclined to believe the 
substitute not quite so effective, the other 
appeal seeming the more elemental and 
therefore the stronger of the two. Lewes' 
definition can be made sufficiently inclusive 
if we say that fiction's hold is due to its en- 
abling the human being to live life vica- 
riously, at his own pleasure, on his own initia- 



134 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION ^VRITING 

live and always as the ultimate controller of 
destiny, since he can at any moment toss the 
story aside, wiping out the entire stoiy world. 
But if this is so, isn't it safe to say that the 
normal human being on the whole prefers 
pleasure to pain and finds more pleasure in 
success and perfection than in failure and 
imperfection? Psychologists can justly re- 
tort with, "But what are pleasure and pain?" 
The common-sense answer to that is that the 
psychologists can't agree among themselves 
upon a definition, that fiction is not written 
for psychologists but for people in general, 
and that most of us have a sufficiently defin- 
ite idea of what pleases people in general and 
what is disagreeable to them. 

When jj-ou come to the chapter on "Char- 
acter" consider in connection wdth some of 
the points suggested there the points here 
suggested as to perfection of hero. Both 
there and here it might pay to run over in 
your mind the story characters that have best 
stood the test of ages, from "Achilles," "Ulys- 
ses" and the faithful "Achates" up to modern 
times. Best of all, forget you are a writer and 
as a reader shake yourself free for a few mo- 
ments from all book learning and culture, all 



PLEASING THE READER 135 

preconceived ideas, all opinions of all critics 
and very particularly free from self-decep- 
tion. Reduce yourself thus to a plain, com- 
mon or garden human being, open to any 
natural impulses or likings and honestly will- 
ing to recognize and confess them. Then 
pick out the heroes or heroines you most 
enjoy, that have the strongest hold on your 
liking, being careful not to test by the literary 
criteria that have been imposed on you. If 
3'ou do this honestly and keenly you may not 
wholly agree with my point of view, but I'll 
venture you'll consider your time well spent 
and that your allegiance to various learned 
dicta may be somewhat shaken. Particularly 
if you habitually identify yourself with the 
heroes as you read, don't you find yourself 
reveling in a hero's superior wdt, grace, come- 
liness, strength or skill? Isn't this proud joy 
in him something deeper and more abiding 
than tests imposed by sophistication? Be 
honest. 

To get at the whole matter from a different 
angle, don't human beings like to idealize? 

One other point. When the world was 
young the individual rose or fell, lived or 
died, in accordance with the degree of his 



136 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

physical strength, skill, courage and beauty. 
Mental and moral values were later factors. 
The physical is the most elemental, the most 
deeply rooted, in the race. Also, so long as 
we have wars and policemen, it remains the 
strongest, the court of last appeal. A thou- 
sand years from now it may have sunk into 
comparative oblivion, but even then the ra- 
cial instinct of respect and admiration for it 
will persist. If you doubt its greater hold on 
human beings at large, forget books and 
study people — not just one class or type but 
people in general. No, I am not a material- 
ist; the moral or mental can overcome the 
physical, but it is the physical that is there 
first, that is the more elemental in matters of 
liking and disliking, the strongest in natural 
impulse. And what I am trying to drive 
home is the need of greater consideration of 
the elemental likes and dislikes of readers, 
for they are being forgotten under the more 
vocal and visible likes and dislikes imposed 
by a civilization and culture often artificial 
and therefore weaker. 

Why not, then, whenever you can do so 
without sacrifice of values more important to 
the particular case (as you generally can). 



PLEASING THE READER 137 

see to it that your hero makes this fundamen- 
tal appeal in some way? 

On the otiier hand, remember the facts of 
life. Listen to the following from William 
Ashley Anderson, a writer who, though an 
American, fought through the British East 
African campaign and has spent a good 
many of his years in meeting life in the raw 
at far corners of the world as well as life in 
its softer centers : 

"Villains who always look like monsters 
strike me as burlesque. 

"Villainous-looking men are frequently 
good-hearted and heroic. Good-looking men 
may be fiends. Character is really indicated 
more by expression than features — and a 
clever villain can control his expression. 
Primitive types, of course, betray themselves 
most easily. The expression of the most 
cruel men is usually dull, stupid, hungry — or 
with a look of wildness or concentration in 
the eyes. A good man, drunk, maj' become 
an arch-villain. His looks then might be the 
looks of an arch-villain; sober, he might have 
the appearance of an angel. 'Lucifer was the 
most beautiful of all the angels'! 

"By the same token the employment of 
handsome, powerful heroes is often exasper- 
ating. On the average, handsome men are 
less likely to be brave than homely men — 
because of the very fact that they are hand- 
some; and a man with pretty features seldom 
has a strong character (since the character is 



138 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

often spoiled by too much praise in youth, or 
too much flattery from women after reaching 
adolescence). You remember Caesar's en- 
counter with Pompey, when the former in- 
structed his hard-bitten veterans to strike at 
the faces of the handsome soldiers of 
Pompey. 

"It is a fact that a man conscious of a hand- 
some set of teeth recoils more at the thought 
of losing several of them from a blow than 
he does at the idea of broken limbs." 

Poor Heroes, Heroines and Villains. — By 
all means do not idealize into such perfection 
and success that j^our characters are unhu- 
man and unconvincing, but, I implore you, in 
making them human do not add any recruits 
to the great army of main characters who are 
unintentionally presented as imbecile. Some- 
times carelessness is responsible for this 
stupidity, but generally the cause is the writ- 
er's surrender to the difficulties of plot — it 
is so easy to keep the plot machineiy clank- 
ing along by having the hero become a tem- 
porary idiot. Misunderstanding may be the 
basis of tragedy and drama, but a man can 
misunderstand without qualifying for an 
asylum for the feeble-minded. 

Please also lend your efforts to the needed 
work of abolishing the heroine, supposed to 



PLEASING THE READER 139 

be all that is most worth striving for, who is 
really empty of everything except vanity, false 
pride, criielt}' and sublime selfishness — who, 
at her worst, offers her hand to the winner 
of a contest or the performer of some feat. 
I wdsh some one would organize a writers' 
league whose members were pledged either 
not to let their heroes leap into the arena at 
her bidding or to have them, after recovering 
her glove, throw it in her face. But I fear she 
will continue to hold sway undetected, as she 
does in real life. Perhaps the heroes are as 
bad, but I am a man myself. 

Moral Values. — Nearly all people are 
moral to the extent of preferring good to bad 
when they have nothing at stake, as, for ex- 
ample, when reacting to merely imaginaiy 
people in a story. They side with the hero 
against the villain. 

Readers with a discriminating sense of 
moral values are likely to be alienated by a 
character, supposed to be good, who is made 
to act contrary to good morals or ethics by 
the apparently unconscious author. Readers 
without this discriminating sense are a moral 
responsibility laid upon the author; he is 
culpable if he still further befogs their dis- 



140 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

crimination between right and wrong by win- 
ning their approval of a character and then 
letting that character seduce them unawares 
into bad ethics. 

Fiction is more than a reflection of the 
times; it is a builder of its contemporaneous 
thought and morality. If I were asked to 
name the five greatest influences upon the 
character of a people I should most emphat- 
ically'^ include fiction and it would be 
nearer first than last among the five. Watch 
its effect upon your child. If you are of an- 
alytical turn, seek far back in memory for the 
origin of j'^our own ethical standards and 
ideals, or for the influences that strengthened 
or weakened them. Watch the mass of peo- 
ple respond to the standards held up by fic- 
tion — and by the drama, motion-pictures and 
other forms of art. Do not swallow the ex- 
cuse that they "only give what the people 
demand"; those of you on the "inside" will 
know better. 

I know the defenses offered for the pica- 
resque story. I am familiar with the plea of 
"art for art's sake." It seems to me mere idle 
talk. Art is for life, not life for art, and if 
art, however justified by its own laws, pol- 



PLEASING THE READER 141 

lutes the soul of a people, then the cause of 
that pollution should be wiped out. 

Realism and the spread of knowledge can 
justify a picture of life as it is, though too 
often the author's real Interest is not in the 
reality of what he presents but in its ugliness. 
An author is justified in using fiction as an 
instrument against what he sincerely believes 
mistaken morality, though his own morality 
is impeached if he ventures his dissent with- 
out most anxious consideration of the serious- 
ness of what he is doing. But there is no ex- 
cuse whatever for presenting ugliness as 
beauty, crime dressed in honor, vice as ad- 
mirable, crookedness as amusing, rottenness 
as normal, evil as good. He who makes a 
criminal a hero is playing with hell-fire, if I 
may use so old-fashioned a metaphor. He who 
writes a story of crime triumphant is a de- 
baucher of public morals. He who presents, 
however bedecked and disguised, a parasite, 
a fop, a hypocrite, a brute, a crook, as admir- 
able is a dry-rot in the heart of the people. He 
who fills his stories with sex, not for the pur- 
poses of honest realism but for the sake of 
sex-exciting more nickels from human beings, 
is far lower and less courageous than the pimp. 



142 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

I can not ask you to accept my point of 
view in these matters, yet, because of the 
broadcast, invidious evil involved and be- 
cause the morality of fiction seems a thing 
seldom touched upon by text-books, I do ask 
that you weigh your responsibilities. A sur- 
prising number of offenses are purely inad- 
vertent and are eagerly corrected by the 
authors when pointed out, for most writers 
are not evil in intent. These slips, at least, 
can be more guarded against, for they are 
due more to lack of careful weighing than 
to lack of a moral sense. One common and 
easily detected lapse is the use of the princi- 
ple that the end justifies the means — the phil- 
anthropic criminal, for example, by emulat- 
ing whom any one can justify almost 
anything he wishes to do. 

From the purely practical point of view 
these things are for the most part irritations 
to the discriminating. Often with the undis- 
criminating they add nothing to the story's 
effectiveness, though operating in real life 
after the story itself is forgotten. As to the 
popular and financial success of polluting 
fiction you will notice that the public is suf- 
ficiently sound usually to react eventually. 



PLEASING THE READER 143 

especially if given half a chance, against the 
very thing it has embraced. 

Needless Offenses. — Write it down in red 
ink that any slur upon any religion that 
creeps into your story will cause everything 
else to be forgotten by some of your readers 
in their indignation over that affront. And 
make up your mind that anything offering ""\ 
even the most remote possibility of being / 
twisted into a slur will assuredly be so / 
twisted. Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Scien-/ 
lists, all have representatives with chips bal- 
anced on the edge of their shoulders. 
Generally the slur is taken as a deliberate in- 
sult on the part of both author and editor, 
often as sure evidence of a systematic cam- 
paign of propaganda. If the hero happens to 
be a minister, priest, rabbi or reader, other 
sects accuse you of propaganda in favor of 
the particular religion involved. If the vil- 
lain happens to be one of these, then it is 
followers of the religion involved who com- 
plain. More, the villain need be only a fol- 
lower of some religion to convict you of 
felonious assault upon that religion itself. 

Fortunately, villains generally have no reli- 
gion to speak of, but sometimes it is essential 



144 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

to the story's best interests to include them 
at least formally in some particular fold. 
When it is, do so, taking care to avoid any 
faint suggestion of connection between their 
villainy and their faith. The type of mind 
that considers the villainy of a single fictional 
character an attack on a religion as a whole 
can be given consideration only within the 
bounds of reason. 

Readers are sensitive, too, on the subject 
of race. We have a saying in the office that 
the only safe villain is an atheist American. 
Since 1917 atheist Germans can be used; in 
fact, they are being used until the monotony 
of it is wearing. A Swede as villain is taken 
by some as sure sign of malignant persecution 
of the Swedes, an English hero proves anti- 
Irish propaganda, of late even Mexicans and 
Spaniards begin to protest against a fellow 
countryman's being used as villain, thus rob- 
bing authors of a time-honored resource. 

Even local pride rallies to the attack if fic- 
tion happens to paint its locality in unpleas- 
ing colors. 

Write your story according to its just de- 
mands, but avoid needlessly trampling upon 
the toes of any of your readers. Sore toes 



PLEASING THE READER 145 

are not conducive to the imposition of suc- 
cessful illusions. ^ 

Positive vs. Negative Plots. — ^Lack of con- 
sideration of this fundamental question leads 
many writers into losing, unconsciously and 
often needlessly, one strong, elemental hold 
upon the sympathies of their readers. 

Human beings like a hero better than a 
villain. They enjoy success more than fail- 
ure, construction better than destruction. 
Consequently they derive more pleasure from 
following to success the fortunes of a hero, 
with whom they sympathize or identify 
themselves, than from following to failure 
the fortunes of a villain, who stands alwaj^s 
for the opposition. Both appeals are strong, 
but the point is that the first is essentially the 
stronger. 

Analj^ze a little further the reader's reac- 
tions to a negative plot. The villain is the 
central character, the course of whose for- 
tunes forms the thread of the story. The 
reader, of course, knows this from the start. 
He knows, too, from experience with fiction, 
that this villain is almost surely doomed to 
failure and possibly death and that the in- 
terest of the story lies in watching him be 



146 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

hunted down, defeat his own ends or get 
caught in a net. A strong interest, assuredly, 
but inherently second in strength and lure 
to that of a positive plot. In the first place, 
the reader knows that he is going to a funeral, 
real or metaphorical. Some people like that 
above all other things, but most do not. 
Vengeance is strong in appeal, but at best 
vengeance is only an attempted and inade- 
quate compensation for loss of success or 
perfection. Second, the reader can give only 
divided interest and allegiance. He generally 
prefers that right should triumph, so he ar- 
rays his sympathies against the villain, but 
fiction experience has firmly fixed in him 
the habit of arraying himself with the cen- 
tral character, in this case the villain. The 
usual result is that his interest has to strad- 
dle — divide; he is at war with himself 
throughout the story. If the villain succeeds, 
the reader's moral sense is hurt. If the vil- 
lain fails, the reader's primal sympathy with 
the central character of a narrative is hurt. 
He can't have an unrestrained good time no 
matter what happens. And his fundamental 
purpose in reading fiction is to have a good 
time. 



PLEASING THE READER 147 

Fiction with only positive plots would be 
monotonous and the negative plot gives a 
needed relief, but when you turn to it remem- 
ber you are under the handicap of a weak- 
ened hold upon your readers. 

Restraint at the Wrong Time. — Have you 
ever considered how often the reader is 
robbed of his vicarious enjoyment by being 
hurried on when he'd really like to stop and 
revel or gloat? For example, take the vil- 
lain. After a career of hellish atrocities and 
maddening injuries to others, often causing 
years of suffering, he is paid back during the 
few seconds required to make a quick neat 
bullet-hole through his forehead or to plunge 
him over a cliff. I confess myself un-Chris- 
tain enough to long for a more proportionate 
punishment. So do all other readers I have 
questioned. 

Take the lost-treasure story for another 
bald, extreme example. After pursuing the 
treasure through a whole story of obstacles 
and strain you finally get it. The author tells 
you you have it and promptly drops the cur- 
tain. You don't get a chance to run the 
doubloons through your fingers, to finger the 
jewels, to sit on the bar silver, to review hap- 



148 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

pily all the pleasant things you can do with 
it. Yet if you really found a treasure, in 
those first moments of final attainment all 
the long struggle for it might become as noth- 
ing and, in looking back, these might be the 
moments most vivid and colorful. Generally 
when story people find the treasure tliey 
don't seem to care a hang. In real life there 
would be drunkenness or delirium of joy. 
Edwin Lefevre first called my attention to 
this cruelty by authors, vowing to write a 
treasure story in which the reader would 
have a real chance to gloat. If he does so, I've 
an idea most of us will get particular enjoy- 
ment therefrom. 

And the love-story. The monotony of 
what is technically and vulgarlj'^ known as 
"the clinch at the end" is sound reason for 
not always carrying the reader quite that far 
along the path of true love, and yet, in spite 
of all our sophistication, don't most of us 
down in our hearts enjoy that satisfying cul- 
mination of the events we've been following 
with so much interest? Wasn't it what we 
wished to happen? Why, then, should we 
enjoy leaving before it does happen, carry- 
ing witli us only a hint or an inference that 



PLEASING THE READER 149 

it would happen at all? To be sure, we can 
imagine the scene to suit each his own par- 
ticular fancy instead of having to accept the 
author's, and, however individual the story 
may have been, the "clinch" is comparatively 
a standardized performance with fewer en- 
ticements of novelty, and yet — most human 
beings are human beings. 

The above are crude illustrations, but they 
illustrate an important principle in the busi- 
ness of pleasing a reader. The usual failure 
to take advantage of the opportunity is only 
another one of the thousand losses of ad- 
vantage resulting from not training writers 
to habitual weighing of the reader's reac- 
tions, particularly his elemental reactions. 
Proportionate space and emphasis in a story 
must be determined primarily by relation to 
plot, but the object of plot is interest and if 
you can, without much or any loss in general 
proportion, give the reader somewhat more 
play at this or that point for the natural reac- 
tions he wishes to exercise, why not pleasure 
him instead of suppressing him? 

It is not a question of pleasant versus un- 
pleasant reactions, but of whatever the 
reader happens to feel. It may be horror or 



150 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

some other unhappy emotion for which he 
desires more time and space. The important 
thing is to give him what he desires. 

Talking Down to the Reader. — Naturally 
no reader likes it and illusion suffers in con- 
sequence. Don't be a schoolmaster or an 
encyclopedia to him. If it's necessary to give 
him information, weave it gently and unob- 
trusively into the story. Don't tell him things 
he is almost sure to know already. Treat 
him as an equal; don't speak down to him 
from a superior height. It seems bad taste, 
as w^ell as a loss in effectiveness, to ask a 
reader's interest in your characters and then 
sneer at them yourself. If you are asking 
him to join you in the sneering, he may pre- 
fer a more kindly and courteous attitude and 
be irritated at you and your invitation. 

General Irritations and a General Recipe. 
— Most of the points covered in the last five 
chapters have general application to the 
reader's likes and dislikes. 

Note this: 

On most points bearing on the writing of 
fiction, a well-thought-out violation of the 
general rule or custom can often increase ef- 
fectiveness. Old methods and formulas, 



PLEASING THE READER 151 

however sound as a general rule, lose in ef- 
fect through endless repetition. They have 
become usual, have worn down their original 
hold, the reader knows what to expect. Give 
him something different and he is grateful. 
Merely to be on the lookout for such oppor- 
tunities is good for you in that it keeps j'^ou 
from falling into the hopeless rut of routine 
and slavery to rules. 

First-Person Narratives. — Do readers pre- 
fer them? I think nobody knows — nor will 
know until somebody takes a national census 
on the point. Why not decide tlie question 
solely according to the demands of the par- 
ticular story and your own bent of ability, 
since readers are divided on the point? 
Some are irritated by too much "I" and by a 
point of view limited strictly to one angle; 
others like the unity and sharp definiteness 
of such a point of view and freedom from the 
author's God-like ability to know so much 
of what goes on in the minds of all the char- 
acters. 

Fooling the Reader. — Making a fool of a 
person is not likely to win his sympathy. 
There is a world of difference between legiti- 
mate surprise and deliberately making a 



152 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

reader create and live in an illusion and then 
showing him he's a fool for having trusted 
you to guide him aright. The story that, at 
the verj"^ end, proves to have been all a dream 
(which the author led the reader into believ- 
ing a reality) is an example of this kind of 
vaudeville horseplay. 

Two Setting Appeals. — Some readers get 
the greater enjoyment from settings and ma- 
terial with which they are familiar, others 
from those as far removed as possible from 
their daily life. In the first case the appeal 
is probably that of realism mixed with the 
joys of self-conceit and pride of knowledge, 
in the second, probably of novelty and of 
the freedom from the imagination-fettering, 
homely, routine details that is so characteris- 
tic of most classic and some modern tragedy. 
Here again there is no comprehensive labora- 
tory knowledge, and the reader's reaction 
should not be made the deciding factor when 
there is any doubt as to the author's com- 
parative ability or the demands of the par- 
ticular story itself. 

In the case of the "costume" or "doublet 
and hose" story, as in some other kinds of 
unfamiliar setting, there is also the appeal 
of pageantry. 



PLEASING THE READER 153 

Temporary factors play their part in influ- 
encing readers' reactions. When the tide of 
war fiction began to ebb there was a notice- 
able reader reaction toward anything that 
would take one's thoughts away from the 
Great War. The magazines suddenly shut 
their doors against stories of the war, but the 
mere absence of these was not enough: there 
arose a noticeable demand for fiction that 
would carry one clear out of these modern 
times into past eras of greater simplicity and 
less wholesale horror. War itself was not 
tabooed, but it must be war of tlie old-fash- 
ioned kind. 



CHAPTER XI 

PLOT AND STRUCTURE 

Throughout all nature, throughout the 
universe so far as we know it, there is a basic 
tendency toward unity and growth. The 
tendency is of course present in the human 
mind. That is why the human mind demands 
plot and structure in fiction. In nature's high- 
er manifestations of plant and animal the de- 
mand for unity progresses into a demand for 
organic structure, an assemblage of parts 
whose respective offices and limitations are 
determined by their relation to the whole and 
which therefore, in addition to their intrinsic 
value, assume a relative value that outranks 
the intrinsic. Add to the tendencies of unity 
and growth a tendency toward limit of 
growth, or perfection. Fiction plot is the re- 
sult of these three universal demands, and 
bearing them in mind is a sound foundation 
from which to consider all problems in con- 
nection with plot. 

154 



PLOT AND STRUCTURE 155 

A similar process of reasoning from ele- 
mental beginnings would, if relentlessly 
applied to the laws, traditions and supersti- 
tions of art, do more than anything else to 
free it from chaff, artificialities and miscon- 
ceptions that have attached themselves to it. 

There is even advantage in considering 
examples from nature for the sake of clearer 
understanding of the nature and require- 
ments of plot. You already know what plot 
is, but see whether comparison with the fol- 
lowing will not crystallize your concept of it 
to a degree that will make you largely inde- 
pendent of rules and regulations: 

A river-system, a river and its network of 
tributaries, is like a plot. A unity with 
growth in a single general direction with its 
mouth as climax or limit of growth; many 
elements combining smoothly and perfectly 
into one. 

The tap-root and subsidiary roots of many 
plants furnish a similar illustration. A tree's 
framework is an inverted example. 

A rope of vines or, more clearly, a man- 
made piece of rope in the process of making 
with the loose strands gathered at one end 
into a closely knit main line. 



156 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

A snow-slide forced by the terrain to con- 
verge all its material into a narrow gap at the 
foot of the slope. 

It would be, I think, a pity if all trees and 
all river-systems were made in strict accord- 
ance with one pattern, as the rules so largely 
demand of plot-building. Yet either tree or 
river-system would be no longer such — and 
a sad spectacle indeed — if it were cut into bits, 
were large where it should be small or were 
otherwise changed from its essential nature. 

Structure. — It has been said that the short 
story is far more exacting than the novel in 
demand for strict unification and rigid en- 
forcement of relative values. That is true in 
practise and I am not sure that it isn't true 
in theory. Perhaps the novel escapes through 
mere laziness or inability of writer and 
reader to create and receive so large a unit 
perfectly constructed in all its many details. 
Perhaps, on the other hand, the novel is a 
more natural expression by the writer and a 
more natural and desired form for the 
reader. Perhaps, if we draw the distinction 
between novel and romance, only the latter 
should be held to the strict requirements of 
short-story structure. 



PLOT AND STRUCTURB 157 

To take the form of strictest requirements, 
I have found only one rule that seems in 
practise to produce satisfactory results: 

The short story has one main point and 
only one. It may be the climax of a course of 
events, an aspect of life, a psychological im- 
passe, what you will. But there must be only 
one of it. Every other element in the story, 
every scrap of material, every bit of color, 
every human trait, everything in the story, 
must be subsidiary to the main point. No 
elements are even admitted to the story un- 
less they serve in developing the main point. 
When admitted they get space and emphasis 
only in proportion to that service. No one 
of them is valuable in itself; their values are 
wholly relative, not intrinsic. (Of course, 
there is no reason for not abandoning this 
principle on occasion if you are sure you can 
better satisfy your readers by so doing.) 

Violations of Unity. — Compelling your 
reader to follow alternately two sets of char- 
acters in two sets of scenes is dangerous, since 
it violates unity unless the reader is kept 
keenly conscious of their inevitable conver- 
gence upon one point. Hopping back and 
forth in the time of the action is in most 



l58 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

cases fatal to unity. Shifting the point of view 
is objected to on grounds of violated unity — 
telling your story first from the angle from 
which events are seen by one character, then 
from the angle of another character or from 
that of the author. 

Do not leave loose strands dangling along 
your rope, like a minor character who van- 
ishes without needed explanation, or a line of 
endeavor suddenly abandoned without a 
word. 

Too many characters are not only an ob- 
stacle to clearness but greatly increase the 
difficulty of unification. 

Do not attempt to include too much ma- 
terial, color, life-history or anything else. 
If your stoiy refuses to unify satisfactorily 
it may be because you are using more ele- 
ments than you are able to handle. Even 
if you can handle all you have, be sure that 
the expanse of your canvass is not greater 
than the reader can look at conveniently and 
without missing some of it. In a general way 
it is well to tuck it in at the edges, so to speak, 
and enclose it in a fairly definite picture- 
frame. 

Holding Reader to Correct Plot Line. — It is 



PLOT AND STRUCTURE 159 

not sufficient to select and assemble the 
proper elements according to their relative 
values. The assignment of proper relative 
space and emphasis must be managed with 
such nicety that the reader can not mistake 
their common direction. He may be kept 
from knowledge of the goal, but he must 
know and feel that everything in the story, 
carrj'ing him along with it, is sweeping along 
in one single general direction. If he is on a 
tributary flowing southwest he must know 
that it is a tributary, not the main stream, that 
it flows southwest and that the main stream, 
while it may flow southwest, south or south- 
east, will hardly flow north. 

A reader tends to anticipate, to cast ahead. 
Make sure that, while you hold from him suf- 
ficient to make any desired surprise effective, 
he does not waste his attention-strength by 
casting ahead over false trails leading away 
from your general direction. In other words, 
keep him in hand from start to finish, being 
sure his feet follow your path in your direc- 
tion. 

To instill a sense of plot, one must either 
go into endless rules, exceptions, diagrams 
and analyses or else present only the funda- 



160 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

mentals and commoner guide-posts, leaving 
the writer to develop his own ability. There 
has been too much of the former method and 
I shall not attempt to add further initiative- 
killing rules, particularly as I believe that the 
majority of fiction rules can often be violated 
with good results. 

Non-Conformist Plot and Structure. — No 
rule for fiction has a sound basis unless it is 
grounded on some such elemental in human 
nature as an instinctive desire for growth, 
unity, completeness, a rounded-out whole, 
symmetry, rhythm, contrast, and so forth. 
But even an elemental desire can be led to 
the point of temporary satiety, even contrast 
itself. Monotony is undoubtedly monoton- 
ous. 

Consider the reader. Fed year after year 
with the results of the same rules, with the 
same literary devices, the same general plots 
and endings, the same signs along the way, 
isn't liis appetite for standard food sure to be 
dulled at intervals? He is far wiser and 
more sophisticated in fiction than you proba- 
bly think; if he goes right on eating standard 
food it is often because he finds a scarcity of 
other kinds. Why not study the condition of 



PLOT AND STRUCTURE 161 

his appetite, estimating from how much of 
certain kinds of food he has had to eat and 
for how long, and then make a business of 
feeding him a new kind until he tires of it 
in turn? A most unliterary suggestion? Per- 
haps, but I should not wholly relish tlie task 
of proving it such. 

There are, at least, certain fashions in fic- 
tion and even in "literature" that change and 
change back with the years. The costume 
story reigns, sinks into oblivion, reigns again. 
The author chats himself into his stories, 
keeps out of them, enters once more to chat 
again. Romance and realism alternate in 
favor. The critics permit it, though sneering 
perhaps at each change, just as they are in- 
clined to sneer at both change and perma- 
nence themselves. 

Why not other changes? For example, 
more changes from the rules of plot? Many 
fairly radical changes, indeed, could be made 
without violation of the really fundamental 
rules. 

Here is the story of an interesting labora- 
tory experiment on the reactions of readers. 
During the war our managing editor was 
stationed in one of the largest officers' train- 



162 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

ing camps. He made a business of watching 
the reactions of his comrades to magazine 
fiction and of course to our own magazine in 
particular. It happened that an author asked 
me to decide a question for him. He was 
writing a novelette around an historical 
character and found himself on the horns of 
a dilemma. Either he must do extreme vio- 
lence to the facts of that famous person's life, 
particularly as to sequence of events, or else 
abandon any attempt at a real fiction plot. 
I suggested that he abandon the attempt at 
plot and structure and make the story prac- 
tically a mere running narrative. 

In the training camp the results of that ex- 
periment were startling and very suggestive. 
Among all the stories in books and magazines 
that structureless novelette reported by far 
the most comment and praise. The most 
valuable point was that the readers were 
sufficiently analytical to know, and state, 
exactly why they liked it: "Different from 
other stories." "Couldn't tell what was going 
to happen." "Couldn't predict the end after 
reading a third of the way." "Like real life." 

Many of them had read numerous other 
stories by the same author, Hugh Pen dexter. 



PLOT AND STRUCTURE 163 

dealing with similar material and times, but 
all these stories had conformed to the laws 
of plot and structure. Practically none of the 
readers was sufficiently familiar with the 
historical character's life to know the ma- 
terial in advance. 

Another laboratory experiment. One day 
in the office some one suggested we hadn't 
had a "desert island" story for a long while 
and ought to get one. All agreed, but of 
course with no enthusiasm; all of us could 
tell that story in its essentials before it was 
even written. Then some one wished they'd 
write "desert island'* stories that were dif- 
ferent. All seven of us fell to outlining the 
kind we'd like personally. All seven agreed. 
All wanted the usual "props" left out and 
all wanted the castaways to have a real and 
a realistic struggle for existence — "no self- 
sacrificing fish," as one put it. There were 
to be no practical specialists like engineers, 
sailors, carpenters and botanists in the party. 
Just every-day people like ourselves. 

Then we figured that, if this was the kind 
of story all of us craved, there were probably 
many readers, just as sophisticated or "fed 
up" as we, who also would welcome this de- 



164 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

parture. We presented the problem to J. 
Allan Dunn, asking whether he cared to 
write a "desert island" novelette without any 
of the usual material therefor, no savages, 
volcanoes, women, cocoanuts, socialism, rival 
party, tropical vegetation, fierce beasts, ani- 
mals waiting for domestication, no specialists 
in the party, no supplies to draw from, noth- 
ing, not even a pen-knife or watch-crystal. 
Each of us wrote out a list of the things he 
knew or could do that might be useful in the 
circumstances — unspecialized and, mostly, 
meager lists. 

He accepted, after justified hesitation. 
We modified our terms to permit him wild 
dogs and wild boars for excitement, meat 
and leather, but it was understood that ac- 
tion, interest and whatever plot proved pos- 
sible were to be drawn from the barehanded 
struggle with nature for existence. 

The conditions and circumstances were 
given to our readers along with the published 
story. It won a stronger response from them 
than had any other story we'd published for 
several years. This from the audience of a 
magazine devoted primarily to action stories 
of which the usual "desert island" story is a 



PLOT AND STRUCTURE 165 

fairly representative type, though it must be 
admitted that this audience has been re- 
cruited from among those who prefer more 
nourishing meat along witli the action, insist 
upon a sound basis of fact or probability and 
are too sophisticated not to have tired of the 
usual hack melodrama. 

These two experiments are at least sug- 
gestive. You can doubtless recall from your 
own experience stories that registered 
strongly on you because of variance from the 
usual types. Generally, if the story succeeds, 
the variance is attributed to genius or unus- 
ual gifts; as a matter of fact it is in most cases 
due either to accident or to a mere common- 
sense study of readers and what can be ex- 
pected to have dulled their appetites. 

Ending a Story. — Variance from type in 
the ending is of particular value. It must, of 
course, be an ending logically belonging to 
the story, but surprise, or at least change, is 
entirely possible. 

Yet is there any escape from the "happy 
ever after" ending of a love-story? I suppose 
and hope so, but have my doubts except as 
to the rarest instances. A love-story without 
at least the suggestion of marriage or its sub- 



166 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

stitute as ending seems considered almost as 
desolate as a love-story without either love 
or story. Renunciation is a reversal of 
"happy ever after" rather than a variation, 
and not generally popular. Death is very 
grudgingly accepted as a substitute. I've 
made earnest effort to secure variants — 
parties decide to be friends instead, one party 
proves to love a third party or grows weary 
of the second, parties quarrel and omit mak- 
ing up, death of either or of all hands, any- 
thing for a change. No results except a 
death-rate well under one per cent. 

Perhaps it is because writers believe edi- 
tors will not accept variants from the "happy 
ever after." I suspect their belief is well 
founded, but I wonder whether in this case 
the editorial attitude is not solidly based on 
a downright insistence from human-being 
readers. 

Unhappy endings? The minority like 
them, the majority do not. I can venture 
nothing more except that the size of the mi- 
nority increases if the line is drawn not be- 
tween "unhappy" and "happy" but between 
endings that leave the reader depressed and 
those that leave him uplifted. Through the 



PLOT AND STRUCTURE 167 

latter, with their appeal of pathos or high 
tragedy, there is decided opportunity for 
comparative variation from the usual. 

At the end of a story I think most readers 
rather resent loose strands of plot left untied, 
like minor characters of whose future no 
glimpse is afforded or some minor enterprise 
that has run through the plot only to have its 
fate a mystery at the end. Skill, particularly 
in unifying severely to the central point, can 
make the reader forget the disappearance of 
minor strands at the very end, hut it is w^ell 
to remember that most readers have a 
healthy sense of legitimate curiosity. 

Beginning a Story. — At the first word of 
your story the reader knows nothing con- 
cerning it except what title, illustrations and 
contents-page may have told him. Generally 
he doesn't know whether it is laid in Africa, 
Alaska or New York City, or whether it is 
of to-day, 1890 or 1700. The more quickly 
you tell him, the more quickly can you draw 
him into your illusion. If you wait, you 
almost certainly confuse and irritate him. 
Story after story comes in to editors that 
leaves the reader groping and unable to settle 
down until long after it is under way; often 



168 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

he doesn't learn where he is until he has 
wandered through several pages. Even a 
paragraph is too long a wait — and waste. 
You need not make a business of placarding 
date and place, but there are a myriad ways 
of introducing him quickly to both. Failure 
to do this is so common and so extremely in- 
jurious to the stoiy's effectiveness that it af- 
fords a most striking example of the disas- 
trous effects of giving more attention to rules 
than to common sense and of not drilling into 
the very bones of writers the necessity of 
watching and measuring their stories con- 
stantly from the point of view of readers. 

Another common and bad mistake is to 
present any but a main character first, prefer- 
ably the main character. Indeed, in the 
short story perfect unification almost de- 
mands that he be first on the stage. But 
there is a common-sense reason aside from 
that of unity and centralization. Long ex- 
perience with fiction has taught readers that 
the first character to appear is nearly always 
the main character, therefore whatever char- 
acter gets tlie initial spot-light is promptly 
seized upon by them as tlie main one. If 
he isn't, they have to let go of the story illu- 
sion they are already building and start 



PLOT AND STRUCTURE 169 

I 

building a new one around a new center and 
feel rather foolish or cheated and irritated. 
As in the case of not setting time and scene, 
the writer has failed to hold them to the cor- 
rect plot line — even to start them on it. Of 
what avail is knowledge of technique, or the 
present method of teaching technique, if it 
fails to impress such horse-sense points as 
these? Sufficient skill can introduce the 
central character when and how it pleases, 
but most writers lack it. 

In the case of the drama there is no harm 
in minor characters appearing first. Stage 
custom has established this, not the other, as 
the custom. Also, the stage, being better able 
to study its patrons at first-hand, has realized 
the catastrophe of letting them stray from the 
correct plot line and guards against it by giv- 
ing out programs in advance as keys to caste 
(with characters listed in order of appear- 
ance), scene, time and sometimes even more; 
the rise of the curtain instantly gives the au- 
dience its bearings in a general way, and 
star, scene, time and even plot are frequently 
known before entering the theater. Writers 
of fiction could profit tremendously by care- 
ful study of the necessarily practical tech- 
nique — or common sense — of the theater. 



CHAPTER XII 

CHARACTER 

For broadest popularity possibly the prime 
single requisite in fiction is action plot, but, 
if so, character drawing is at least a close 
second. Human nature's interest in human 
nature is undying and intense. By the tests 
of the somewhat indefinite thing we call lit- 
erature, character probably ranks first. Ac- 
tion, on the other hand, seems the more 
primitive and the more fundamental; early 
man undoubtedly acted first and thought 
later; when he learned to analyze his fellows 
it was for purposes of action. 

An Experiment. — It is interesting to look 
back over the centuries and consider the 
stories that have had sufficient hold to en- 
dure. Which do you remember first and the 
most distinctly, "Sherlock Holmes," "Mul- 
vaney," "Richard Feveril," "Amyas Leigh," 
"John Silver," "Becky Sharpe," "Old 

170 



CHARACTER 171 

Scrooge," "Quasimodo," "Don Quixote," 
"Falstaff," "Hamlet," * ' L a d y Macbeth," 
"Faust," etc., or the plots and action in which 
they were concerned? "Arthur," "Tristan," 
"Roland," "Siegfried," "Finn McCool," etc., 
or their adventures? "Aeneas," "Hector," 
"Ulysses," etc., or what they did? 

I have made no laboratory tests on other 
people, so can risk no conclusions from this 
test beyond venturing that, as the race grew 
older and its literature developed, character 
interest tended to take first place over the 
more primitive action appeal. Make your 
own tests, allowing for the differences be- 
tween stories of the last few centuries and 
those of long ago. After trying out yourself, 
try out as many other people as you can. If 
you do, you'll get valuable knowledge — and 
understanding — not likely to be found in 
books. 

You'll get not only some useful funda- 
mental ideas on the values and relative 
values of plot and character, but possibly, by 
contrast with others, a sound idea as to 
whether j'our real bent is for plot or for 
character, and, best of all, you will have done 
something toward forming or strengthening 



172 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

the laboratory habit of examining facts in- 
stead of swallowing at theories, and the habit 
of thinking for yourself instead of using the 
weakening crutch of accepting other people's 
theories that they in turn probably accepted 
from other people ad infinitum. 

In any case character drawing — human 
nature — is one of the two most important ele- 
ments in fiction. Yet the lack of it marks 
the majority of submitted manuscripts. In 
many of these cases it is an utter, total, com- 
plete, absolute lack, unless you count the 
crude class distinction between hero and vil- 
lain. Characters are merely proper names, 
lucky if there is even an individualized or 
slightl}^ individualized physical body to cling 
to, and twice lucky if said body has clothes 
or habits of its own. You can lift them out 
of one story and substitute them in another 
with no damage to them or to either story 
and with decided profit in the case of the 
first. It is pitiful — and maddening. 

The tragedy of it is that it can easily be 
remedied by any writer of average human 
intelligence. All he needs for comparatively 
decent characterization is a certain very 
simple recipe. 



CHARACTER 173 

A Recipe. — I don't know whose recipe it is, 
having heard it years ago and forgotten his 
name, though I think its accredited fatiicr 
dates back a century or so, but he should be 
crowned in honor and the use of his recipe 
made compulsory by law. Apparently not 
one writer in ten thousand ever even heard 
of it. 

You can dig out that recipe for yourself 
by the laboratory method advocated above, 
if you will trace English literature back to- 
ward its beginnings. And if I give you a 
broad hint by suggesting a bit of thoughtful, 
practical consideration of the morality plays, 
you should nave no trouble ai all. 

There it is, simple, elemental, effective — 
assign to each person in your story one single 
trait of character and make him show it by 
actions, words, thoughts. 

Carry it into as much detail as possible. 
If I remember aright, the recipe's reputed 
father took as example a character whose 
one trait was cruelty and said that if he were 
made to walk in a garden he must be made 
to knock off the heads of flowers with his 
cane as he passed. 

That's as far as the recipe goes, so far as 



174 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

1 I remember, but try a second elementary 

i 

' step — show the reaction of this single pre- 

; dominant trait upon the other persons in the 

! story, in what they say to him, do to him, 

think of him, always, of course, in the light 

of their own single traits. 

Third step: Assign one or more persons 
a second trait, a minor trait, and proceed as 
before. 

Try it, if you are not beyond the need of 
fundamental suggestions as to characteriza- 
tion. You will not only reap a rich harvest 
of concrete results but will also be getting a 
most excellent training. 

Only a few days ago I was told of a case 
in which it has had a thorough test. I've 
■ never read anything by the author in ques- 
tion, but know that he turns out a consistent 
and steady flow of books whose sales are 
enormous though treated with condescension 
by critics of literature. The report is that in 
the actual writing of his stories he does not 
even give names to his characters but uses 
the name of the predominant traits he as- 
signs to them — Cruelty, Honesty, Vanit3% and 
so on. When the story is finished he, or per- 
haps his secretary, goes through the manu- 



CHARACTER 175 

script, strikes out these names of traits and 
gives each character whatever name meets 
general requirements. Voila! Personally, 
I'd give a good deal to know what would hap- 
pen to his sales if he abandoned this method 
and the kind of characterization it produces 
— to know, rather, whether he would ever 
have had enormous sales if he had not used 
this recipe. 

Just using the morality plays — and Pil- 
grim's Progress — as a sound foundation. 
Maybe it's funny, but maybe you could profit 
by it yourself. Heaven knows that plenty of 
writers could! 

Tags. — If I could, I'd hang over almost 
every writer's desk a large card bearing in 
very black letters these words : 

"Remember that yours is not the only story 
in the world and that it has to compete for 
the reader's attention with countless other 
stories. Your interest in it is particularized 
and personal; his is not. Also, you already 
know everything in the story; he does not. 
You may have failed to put on paper part of 
what you know; in that case he will never 
know it. 

"Remember that 3'our reader has met many 



176 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

people in real life, forgotten all about most 
of them, including their names, and that in 
the great number of stories he has read he 
has met a far greater number of fictitious 
people who, along with their names, fail in 
even greater proportion than have the real 
people to register upon his attention, interest 
and memory. You are merely adding a few 
more to his hundreds of thousands. The 
competition is heavy. You can make no 
headway against it if your story-persons are 
only names, almost none if they are only 
mildly individualized and characterized, 
little enough even if they are drawn fairly 
strongly. 

"Remember, too, that when you introduce 
him to more than two or three new people 
they have to compete, also, among them- 
selves — that he is likely to have difficulty 
even in straightening them out in his mind 
and connecting the right name with each 
character. If you wish your people to get 
and hold his attention and to have any place 
in his memory, you must strive with all your 
might to mark each character, to individual- 
ize each character, by every means within 
your reach. If you have not a natural gift 



CHARACTER 177 

for character drawing, use elementary 
methods." 

The particular elementary, and veiy ef- 
fective, method I have in mind is to hang on 
to each character one or more of vvhat in the 
writing of plays are called, I believe, tags. 
It can be called, if you like, advertising j'our . 
characters. Most of them need it. Or 
might be likeiiet. to the use of motifs i.i 
opera. Or yoi: niight ".n ". .^ it even a^i ay- 
proximar\;' I to liic eonailit ns of real IV. 

Put a '='t^oi!gl5 individualized iobel jii -.ach 
of your chari.cicrs and make the rea ter^ keep 
looking at it. This character conlinu ^lly in- 
troduces his speeches with "Well no v' ; that 
one is always nervously hitching up his 
trousers at the knees; John Jones is so inter- 
ested in golf that he is perpetually dragging 
it into conversation; Myrtle is always titter- 
ing; Brown is conspicuously careful of his 
personal appearance, while his brother 
George wears anything that comes handy and 
Sister Isabel has almost a monomania for 
red; Judson habitually looks into the eyes of 
people with an intent gaze that is hard to 
meet; Henry in appearance and manner sug- 
gests a sheep; the peculiar blackness of 



178 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Maude's eyes is her most marked and im- 
pressive feature. 

Never let a character remain long on the 
stage without presenting his tag. It individ- 
ualizes more strongly than a name. It is a 
most useful guide-post to the reader. It 
strongly reinforces character-drawing and 
may even serve as a cheap substitute, a sub- 
stitute at any price being preferable to noth- 
ing. Also, it becomes an asset in itself, an 
element of appeal that runs the range from 
farce to tragedy and you can mix or alternate 
these or other appeals with strong results. 
Its effect is cumulative. There is for its in- 
trinsic value a sound grounding in funda- 
mental human nature — a reader's uncon- 
scious pride and vanity in "detecting" it as 
characteristic, in being able to forecast its 
coming, his interest and consequent like or 
dislike for tags in real life, his comfort in 
having mental tasks made easy. 

Of course, if you've drawn real character 
for the persons in your story, make their tags 
consistent with character — or, rarely, in de- 
liberate and evident contrast. Equally, of 
course, a tag, like any other good thing, must 
be handled with judgment and not allowed to 
run riot. 



CHARACTER 179 

Results from Tags and High-Point Charac- 
terization. — Study the following fiction char- 
acters that have made a big and lasting "hit," 
so much so that they have been carried 
through a series of books: "Sherlock 
Holmes," "Captain Kettle," "Don Q.," "Briga- 
dier Gerard," "Tartarin," "D'Artagnan," 
"Athos," "Porthos," "Aramis," "Mulvaney," 
"Ortheris," "Learoyd," "Allen Quartermain," 
"Wallingford"; consider also some charac- 
ters of Dickens. Some of these are well- 
drawn and well rounded out, but others 
reduce to the bare bones of the "one-trait 
recipe" and the use of tags, really very ele- 
mentary creations. Yet all are made vivid 
and individualized by means of tags and 
strongly emphasized traits of character. 
While the tags, for the most part, are handled 
with at least a fair degree of skill, the char- 
acterization in some cases, though of course 
not limited to a single trait, is incomplete, 
very elementary and not very well done. Yet 
all have gained a strong popular success, not 
just from the stories in which they appear, 
but as characters. 

It is clear from the above that while the 
*'one-trait recipe" and the use of tags do not 
necessarily spell literature they are by no 



180 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

means incompatible with it. They are merely 
first steps toward really good character depic- 
tion. Their importance in any teaching of fic- 
tion is due chiefly to the lamentable fact that 
most writers do not take or even see them. 

Even advanced writers can often profit 
from consideration of their values. For ex- 
ample, in a certain successful series of novel- 
ettes and novels told in the first person but 
centering on another character, the narrator 
was almost entirely lacking in tags and 
salient character traits and didn't even have 
a name, or a past, or a body, or, often, clothes 
until well along in the series. He was con- 
sistently drawn, so far as he went, but almost 
colorless and with little grip on interest and 
memory, though having a prominent place in 
the plot and not thus subordinated for the 
sake of relative values and unity around the 
central character. The central character was 
strongly drawn, tags and all, and the series as 
a whole had so many other merits that the 
colorlessness of the fictitious narrator could 
not wreck it, but its improvement was very 
marked when he was developed and brought 
to his proper place in the lime-light by the 
tags and salient traits needed in addition to 
the general filling in. 



CHARACTER 181 

Characterization in General. — I attempt no 
covering of the subject, desiring only to bring 
out the points that the general in-flow of 
manuscripts shows are, in practise, most in 
need of attention. There are already hosts 
of books giving detailed instructions, 
theories, examples, analyses and exercises. 
Some of them are useful and valuable in 
many cases. In general they seem to me 
likely to be dangerous, unless the student 
uses exceptional care, in that they are likely 
to encourage a tendency toward mechanics 
instead of art, artificiality instead of natural- 
ness, strain and limitation instead of free- 
dom, and copying instead of art. I am aware 
that tags and the "one-trait recipe" seem 
open to the same charge, but their saving 
clause is that they can teach the writer how 
to develop himself rather than how to turn 
out finished work by rule. Also the present 
need of them in practise is appalling, and 
perhaps that need would not be so great if 
writers had been trained by more naturalistic 
methods. 

The only sound and comprehensive rule for 
characterization is: 

Study people, first as subjects, second as 
recipients of the knowledge you have gained. 



CHAPTER XIII 

INDIVIDUALITY VS. TECHNIQUE 

Year after year editors sit at their desks 
and almost at a single glance reject anywhere 
from sixty to ninety per cent, of the manu- 
scripts that come in, and, on the whole, they 
make few mistakes in so doing. Some of 
these summarily rejected ones are so illiter- 
ate that most freshmen in college would 
unhesitatingly turn them down, but on the 
majority is the damning and almost unmis- 
takable brand of "no individuality" — merely 
another manuscript plodding blindly along 
in the machine-like effort to turn out by 
machine-like methods another one "like 
those they've read," another stilted, unnat- 
ural attempt at producing a life-like copy of 
a model denaturalized, by them or their 
teachers, into a mechanical and artificial col- 
lection of rags, bones and hanks of hair that 
has never known the breath of life. 
182 



INDIVIDUALITY VS. TECHNIQUE 183 

Lack of Individuality. — How can the editor 
tell at a glance? How in heaven's name can 
he help telling? He's read the same kind of 
thing — the same thing except for variations 
of theme and setting — thousands and thou- 
sands and thousands of times before until 
recognizing it at a glance is as easy as recog- 
nizing a trolley-car among other vehicles on 
his way to the office of mornings. The tracks 
are no plainer in one case than the other. 

But maybe the author does better farther 
on in the story? Doubtless it has happened, 
but the instances constitute a negligible fac- 
tor. That poor editor learned to hunt no 
farther only by hunting farther thousands of 
times, when he was new and optimistic, and 
finding nothing. He has learned that any 
writer fool enough to begin a story in so 
stupid a way is too much a fool all the way 
along to be worth listening to. 

Disbelieve this ability, if you like, and let's 
pass on to the stories he does not discard at 
a glance. These he reads to varying extents, 
according to their ability to hold him as an 
editor — sometimes a cursory examination, 
sometimes solid parts here and there, some- 
times straight through, sometimes only part 



184 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

way. Many things, including mistaken judg- 
ment, can stop him, but oftenest of all I be- 
lieve it is the story's lack of individuality. 
He finds he's read it too many times before 
and knows that his readers have. 

The sameness may be in plot, theme, style, 
anything or all together, but it's the sameness 
that stops him and kills the story. As a 
reader, judge for yourself from the stories 
that get published, after editors have dis- 
carded all but enough to fill their space — 
all but one to five per cent, say, of the total 
submitted. Is there not sufficient sameness 
in even these? Then judge what the dis- 
carded ninety-five or ninety-nine per cent, 
must be, making any reasonable allowance 
you please for the fallibility of editors. 

Reasons for the Lack. — Much of the lack 
of individuality in stories is due to lack of 
individuality in the writers. To what degree 
a person can develop his individuality I do 
not presume to say, but lack of real individ- 
uality in his stories is curable to exactly that 
degree and no more. 

But many of the writers whose stories show 
none, have individuality. Why doesn't it 
show in their work? Because they have been 



INDIVIDUALITY VS. TECHNIQUE 185 

taught by present methods of teaching fic- 
tion to be artificial, not natural, or have 
themselves slavishly modeled themselves 
after some one else. 

What chance has your individuality if you 
turn your back on it and resolutely try to 
copy another man's, or if you lose yourself in 
an endless maze of rules and regulations? 
Rules and regulations imposed, for the most 
part, by people equally lost in the maze. 

No, you can't let your individuality run 
riot regardless of all rules, for some rules are 
laws of the human mind to which all of us 
are subject. But it does not follow that you 
must assassinate your individuality. It is 
your main asset. Without it, neither empty 
rules nor sound laws can build anything of 
themselves. 

Technique? Of course you need technique^ 
but if you make of it a golden calf and bow 
down in worship, you perish. 

Get technique; don't let it get you. What 
technique should give you is tools, not rules. 
And not a monomaniac collector's collection 
of tools, collected for the sake of including all 
tools known to man, but only those tools so 
well mastered that they fit almost automati- 



186 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

cally into your hand, carrying out smoothly 
the guiding impulse of your brain. 

But you have to learn to use them before 
you can acquire such skill? Yes, but remem- 
ber the purpose of your learning — and don't 
try to learn and use more tools than you can 
master. Remember that an augur is an 
augur — that it's not a demand upon you to 
bore a hole in something, but onlj'^ a means 
of making a hole when one is needed. Be- 
cause a hammer is for driving nails do you 
have to use it when you're modeling in clay? 

I dare say it is bad taste for me to criticize 
other books on writing fiction and other 
methods of teaching fiction, but, pardon me, 
I don't give a damn. For years I've sat and 
watched teachers, poorly equipped for the 
task and perfectly equipped for their manner 
of handling it, blandly do their utmost to ruin 
a writer by holding before his wide eyes so 
miany rules that he finds it difficult ever to 
see anything else. If among them are in- 
cluded some rules on preserving his individ- 
uality while he's following all the other rules, 
what can that mean to him? If liis teachers 
perchance present technique as tools, not 
rules, they load so many of them upon his 



INDIVIDUALITY VS. TECHNIQUE 187 

trustful back that he can not walk, to say 
nothing of mastering the tools. 

The essence of their damage lies in two 
things : 

First, the rules they pour forth so endlessly 
they themselves got from some one else and 
accept them chiefly for that reason. Ask 
them the why of each of their rules and there 
is likely to be a considerable hiatus between 
their last book and the next. 

Too often they seem to have been merely 
perpetuating an hereditary collection of rules 
for the sake of preserving the collection as an 
entity in itself, forgetting that some of the 
rules might be unsound and neglecting — if 
they ever thought about them — to give their 
students the foundations in human nature 
upon which the sound ones must rest. 

Second, the whole tendency of such teach- 
ing is to make the learner look at other writ- 
ers instead of within himself, to absorb other 
people's style and methods instead of devel- 
oping his own, to copy rather than to think 
things out for himself, to be artificial rather 
than natural, cramped rather than free, to 
waste his time on details instead of giving it 
to vital things. 



188 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

I should venture no such strong condemna- 
tion if I did not feel that I am merely voicing 
the opinion of most editors — of the men and 
women who are in best position to note the 
devastating effects upon to-day's fiction. And 
I am, of course, speaking of the books and 
teaching methods as a class. There are ex- 
ceptions, naturally — though one writer, for 
example, tells me he has read between forty 
and fifty books on fiction writing, finding 
only one of them worth while — and practi- 
cally all such books can be of use, sometimes 
of very great use, to the raw beginner. So can 
a rhetoric or a common English grammar. 

In the light of results, the fundamental 
point these books most fail to make is that 
most of their contents should be read — not 
memorized or swallowed — for stimulus and 
suggestion only, and that the student must see 
to it that no rules turn him aside from his 
main business of developing and using his 
own individuality. 

I am painfully aware that in this book I, 
too, have given rules as rules, but I have tried 
to give the foundations of a sufficient number 
of them to lead the student into the habit of 
looking for foundations himself and working 



INDIVIDUALITY VS. TECHNIQUE 189 

out his own destiny. For the foundations I 
ask consideration, for my rules none at all ex- 
cept as danger-signs erected from twenty 
years' experience to point out the errors most 
common in actual practise. 

I am still more keenly aware that in many 
instances I fail to meet possible objections and 
justified exceptions. Often it is because I fail 
to think of them at the time or never thought 
of them, but often it is because there is a limit 
to available space and because too many as- 
pects and too much detail breed confusion. 
Literature is the communication, between 
human beings, of human nature and human 
experience. Who can give complete rules for 
a process and content so infinitely various? 
Bear in mind first, last and always, that this 
book does not attempt to be a complete 
treatise on writing fiction. Its purpose is to 
emphasize those points and points of view 
that, from years of examining the actual 
manuscripts submitted to magazines, seem 
most to need emphasis, and, second, to raise 
against the present fashion in teaching meth- 
ods a small flag of revolt under which I be- 
lieve most editors and most discriminating 
readers will be content to stand, no matter 



190 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

how great may be their disagreement with 
me on specific points. 

Unfamiliarity with Things Taught. — Last 
week I borrowed three books on the writing 
of fiction and ran through their pages. One 
was by a university professor who gave a 
most interesting picture of the editorial world, 
of its offices, their occupants, customs, rules, 
policies, points of view. The title-page stated 
that he had formerly been with a publishing 
house — probably for the sake of the experi- 
ence, during a summer vacation. I became 
fascinated, almost wishing I could live in that 
world myself. I never have. 

I realize that, for those entirely unfamiliar 
with the inside of the editorial world, his pic- 
ture of it was sufficiently near the truth to be 
of decided practical value. Yet his almost 
glib generalities and his choices for particu- 
larization made me shudder for the misap- 
prehensions that might arise from them. He 
was like the European traveler who spends a 
month or two in the United States and then 
describes and explains it to the world. Any 
conscientious editor of long experience would, 
I think, hesitate before attempting to present 
in a chapter or two of a text-book for earnest 



INDIVIDUALITY VS. TECHNIQUE 191 

students a complete and final exposition of 
the editorial field. It is too complex, too 
various, too changeable. 

And if these teachers venture to expound 
so much and so finally from so small a knowl- 
edge of what may be called the mere machin- 
ery of the editorial world, it seems logical to 
conclude that they may have equally insuf- 
ficient basis when they attempt to explain 
what kind of fiction the editors want and 
how to manufacture it. 

Evils of Models and Examples. — But what 
struck me most forcibly in those three books 
was the vast amount of space given to models 
and examples. Stories were constantly being 
laid upon the operating table, in whole or 
part, and dissected and analyzed. The pages 
were strewn with dismembered parts, ticketed 
and labeled, to be sure, and filed in most 
orderly fashion, but the panorama as a whole 
was enough to ruin a writer forever if it did 
not drive him mad. Oh yes, I know we must 
take a clock apart before we can learn how 
to make a clock, but an artist should live in a 
studio, not an operating-room. The use of 
examples and models is a valuable adjunct 
of teaching, but it is not teaching. As far as 



192 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

I can learn from cursory glances from time 
to time, through inquiry and through noting 
results in submitted manuscripts, dissected 
models and examples form the backbone of 
teaching method. Use them, by all means, 
but only sufficiently to show the student how 
to do his own analyzing when he feels the 
need. And teach him general principles to 
make him keen to the need when it is there. 
Teach him to work ; don't litter his mind with 
tiie work you've done on a third person's 
work. 

The mechanical method of teaching is per- 
fectly adapted to those students who by no 
possibility can be anything but mechanical 
writers, working by rule of thumb, building 
a structure by foot-rule and pouring in its 
contents from a graduated beaker. But is 
producing such writers worth while or even 
justifiable? Even if your purpose is the 
broader, industrial one of adding to the gen- 
eral earning capacity of the nation? Of 
course, if you are merely writing a text-book 
tliat will sell — 

It is upon the writers who are not doomed 
by their own limitations to be merely me- 
chanics that the curse of mechanical teaching 



rNDIVIDUALITY VS. TECHNIQUE 193 

falls. The genius and the really strong indi- 
vidualist will escape, but what of him with 
moderate or even considerable gifts? He 
goes into the bed of Procrustes. He is lopped 
here, stretched there; he is badgered and 
blinded with examples and precedents, kept 
from natural development and natural ex- 
pression by the study of rules for growth and 
by listening to otlier people express them- 
selves, prevented from being himself and 
giving rein to his own individuality by the 
constant study of individualities not his own. 
If only you could sit for a year at some edi- 
torial desk and see these poor maimed fel- 
lows come in endless line with their pathetic, 
lifeless wares! Well-made stories, so much 
so that they are almost exactly like all other 
well-made stories, but in them here and there 
a still unsmothered spark that might have 
been a flame. And after the procession has 
filed up to you for a while it is not the prop- 
erly built stories they lay on your desk that 
you sec, but those countless other stories that 
will never be laid on any desk. It is like look- 
ing out over the world of children who can 
never be born, the better children, the dream 
children, who could make the world so much 



194 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

better if only they were here. If you could 
sit for a year at some editorial desk, you 
would join with me in saying, "Damn such 
teaching methods!" 

Individuality and Naturalness First. — You 
who are learning to write — and writers are 
always learning if they are worthy of their 
name — put this little rule at the head of all 
your list of rules and let no rule that follows 
seem to you one-half so well worth clinging 

to: EXPRESS YOUR NATURAL SELF NATURALLY. 

Believe me, it is worth clinging to, even at 
the cost of aches and bruises. As for all the 
other rules, accept only those grounded solid- 
ly in human nature and take for your guides, 
not the rules, but their foundations. If you 
find yourself drifting into the stilted dialect 
so many feel must be assumed on entering 
the printed page, tear up what you have writ- 
ten and say your say in your own words. 
Maybe the result will be sad indeed; there are 
always many things to learn. But in your 
learning you will find no secret of technique, 
no trick of the trade, that is not second in im- 
portance to the prime necessity of develop- 
ing and expressing your own individuality. 
If they hold before your eyes some story by 
De Mf^nnnssant, Stevenson, Kipling, O. Henry, 



INDIVIDUALITY VS. TECHNIQUE 195 

look b}'^ all means and study what you see, 
but be sure that your strongest reaction is, 
"Yes, these are deft uses of tools, masterly 
handlings of thought, and I will be awake to 
similar opportunities in my own work, but 
the fact remains that what I have seen is only 
De Maupassant using his tools, Stevenson 
using his, and the others each his own. I am 
not De Maupassant or Stevenson or Kipling 
or O. Henry or anybody else except myself. 
I can't possibly ever be any of them, and if I 
try to be any of them I can't be even myself. 
Perhaps their tools and devices are not the 
ones best adapted to my case, though they 
may prove valuable. Now I'll go back to my 
work." 

And if they ask you to look at many other 
workmen, refuse utterly. Do your own look- 
ing. You probably know far better than they 
what it is you need to look for; if you don't 
know where to look for it, then ask. You'll 
probably be looking enough without any one's 
driving you to it. And, always, when you 
look, carry away with you only what you can 
absorb. Undigested food of this kind will 
kill you. 

Being "Literary." — Don't try to be "liter- 
ary" until you know what being "literary" 



196 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

really means. Most writers do not know. 
I'm not sure that I know, but certainly I know 
a few things it is and a few things it is not. 

It is not being queer for the sake of queer- 
ness. It is not using large and learned words. 
It is not getting as far away as possible from 
the language of life. It is not thinking, feel- 
ing or talking artificially instead of naturally. 
It is not the copying of others. It is not either 
wallowing in strong emotions or daintily 
avoiding them. 

It is telling things as you see or feel them. 
It is using the words that accomplish this with 
least lost motion, words so natural and famil- 
iar you are sure they are exact to the case. 
It is the preserving, developing and express- 
ing of your own individuality. 

Style? Be yourself and your style will be 
born of itself. Be anything else and, instead 
of style, you will attain only an acrobatic per- 
formance. There are enough acrobats al- 
ready, and enough people who are not them- 
selves. 

I should like to add, with some bitterness, 
that a knowledge of plain English grammar, 
even for writers who consider themselves 
"arrived," is an almost necessary step toward 
being "literary." 



CHAPTER XIV 

THE READER AND HIS IMAGINATION 

When you read a story you live more or 
less in its story world. There arc printed 
words on the page and they cause your imag- 
ination (I do not use the word in the sense of 
"fancy" but to indicate the mental power 
that chooses and discards among certain 
things to construct certain other things) to 
build from your own experience a set of 
mental images or impressions. The story's 
world becomes real to you in proportion as 
the storj^'s words succeed in making you re- 
produce |it in your mind. 

Variation in Visualization. — But the suc- 
cess of the story's words in doing this is 
dependent not only on the skill and power of 
their stimulus but also on the ability of your 
imagination to respond. Success is depend- 
ent not only on the writer but on the reader. 

Readers vary tremendously in the funda- 
197 



198 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

mental ability of their imaginations to re- 
spond, both as to quality and degree. It is 
surprising that this fact is so little known, for 
its careful consideration is of the utmost im- 
portance to success in writing fiction. While 
my questionings have been only casual, I 
have not yet found either a writer or an ed- 
itor who took this variation as a serious 
factor in his work or who had even discov- 
ered the existence of the variation. Where- 
fore ni}^ gratitude is the deeper to Professor 
Joseph Villiers Denney for having brought it 
to my attention in a college class a quarter 
of a century ago. 

If you have not already investigated, make 
the experiment upon your friends. Ask 
your friends what they see when they read a 
story and you will find amazing variations. 
Some visualize clearly everj^thing mentioned 
or suggested — see the characters, actions and 
scene in full detail just as on a stage or in 
real life. Others see things and movement, 
but without colors in their pictures. Some 
see people but without faces. Some see 
things only if, and only as fully as, described 
by the author. Some see fully even if the au- 
thor fails to describe. Some make their own 



THE READER AND HIS IMAGINATION 199 

images partly different from even definite 
ones painted by the author, often because he 
fails to impress his images first. (In tlie set- 
ting of a story, for example, haven't you, if 
you visualize readily, had to change your 
picture of the scene's geography or pick up 
the whole setting and twist it around to 
make north come where you had had east?) 
Remember this when you are the author, and 
save your readers this violence to the il- 
lusion. Some have a stock imagination- 
picture that does service for a concept in 
almost any circumstances. Some see practic- 
ally nothing — can not shut their eyes and see 
the very room in which they are sitting or 
even the faces of their nearest and dearest. 

I knew a high-school valedictorian who 
easily mastered every subject until she came 
to solid geometry. In that study she could 
not even make a start, was totally helpless — 
simply because she was constitutionally in- 
capable of looking at the two-dimension 
page and seeing, in her imagination, the 
third dimension. She got raw potatoes, cut 
them up to represent the three-dimension 
figures and had no further trouble. An- 
other woman overcame the same difficulty 



200 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

by the same vegetable route. I know an ar- 
tist, very successfully designing stage-settings, 
who can not "tell how things will look" unless 
he looks at them, or pictures or models of 
them, with his physical eye. 

Yet most writers attempt to reach all these 
types of imagination without giving the mat- 
ter a thought! Generally they calmly take 
it for granted that every one of their readers 
has exactly the same qualities and limita- 
tions of imaginative visualization as them- 
selves! What rich opportunities are lost! 
Here is a matter in which you should not, 
without very careful consideration, write 
things merely as you see them, at least when it 
comes to revision, unless your way of seeing 
them happens to be the way that is most ef- 
fective with most people. 

Each author has his individual qualities in 
this respect. When he paints his word pic- 
tures he tends to use only as many strokes 
of his brush as make a complete and satis- 
fying picture for him. But how complete or 
satisfying will that picture be to the major- 
ity of readers who may not even approxi- 
mate his qualities of imaginative visualiza- 
tion? The words he has set down give him 



THE READER AND HIS IMAGINATION 201 

the picture, but will they give it to others? 
He can not test out the visualization of the 
entire population, but he can at least assign 
himself a fairly definite place in the relative 
scale, scrutinize his word pictures from the 
point of view of those of different powers 
and probably revise his painting methods so 
that his stories will gain surprisingly in pop- 
ular appeal, either by additional touches or 
by changing the relative proportion of the 
various kinds of stimulus. 

A certain writer of w^estern stories found 
that his work made a strong appeal to those 
it interested at all, but that the size of his 
audience was far less than seemed justly 
merited. Apparently all the elements of 
good fiction were present. But, if he had 
considered his readers' psychology in other 
respects, he certainly had not done so as to 
visualization. He himself could reread his 
words and from them see his story world in 
full. So could I, for we both happened to 
have the type of imagination that visualizes 
readily and fills gaps when needed. But 
many readers haven't this type and, as 
finally became apparent, these were largely 
the ones who had failed to become part of 



202 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

his normal audience. For he had not drawn 
any visual pictures for those who need them. 
To them his story people were merely names 
and dispositions, without clothes or bodily 
appearance, that did dim things in unseen 
places. The author had deemed it waste of 
words to describe things that were — to him — 
seen of themselves. It was difficult to get 
him to "pad" his stories with visualizing de- 
scriptions, but when he began adding them 
his audience began to grow. 

Variation in Other Imaginative Powers. — 
You will find that probably a minority have 
imaginations that reproduce not only visual 
impressions but those of the other senses. 
Some can hear the sounds of a story — not 
merely have an intelligent concept of sounds 
mentioned, but actually hear them almost as 
clearly as if they were actual physical 
sounds. Some can taste via their imagina- 
tions, with such vividness that their mouths 
water. Some can smell the odors in a story 
they read. Some can reproduce the impres- 
sions that register through the sense of touch 
— smoothness, friction, impact, pressure. 

I hope to have for a later volume some 
statistics that will give some idea of the rel- 



THE READER AND HIS IMAGINATION 203 

ative frequency of the reproduction of the 
senses. In any case, the great opportunity 
for loss or gain of hold on readers offered 
tlirough visual imagination is considerably 
multiplied by tlie cases of the four other 
senses. The field as a whole is so important 
it is almost incredible that it does not play a 
main part in all teaching of fiction writing. 
Appeal to the senses may possibly be includ- 
ed, though I've not chanced on it in my 
cursory glances at text-books, but, as previ- 
ously stated, up to this writing I've happened 
to find no writer who has even considered 
the variation in sense-imagination among 
readers. 

I recall a statement in Professor Denney's 
thesis class to the effect that analysis would 
show the most popular poets, like Burns and 
Longfellow, to be as a rule strongly marked 
bj^ their imagination appeal to all or most 
of the five senses. Is there any reason why a 
similarly broad appeal in the case of prose 
would not reap like results? The case would 
seem to be stated thus: The more fully you 
reach a reader, the more fully you reach 
him. 

Suppose your imagination sees and hears. 



204 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

but does not smell, taste or touch. Look at 
one of your own stories. Have you given 
comparatively few pictures or stimuli to 
your readers' visual and auditory imagina- 
tion, perhaps taking it for granted that all 
readers would supply them fully and satis- 
factorily, as you do? Or have you, simply 
absorbed in your own personal equation, 
failed to put into your story any consider- 
able number of stimuli to smell, taste and 
touch imaginations? In either case, con- 
sider how greatly j^ou have weakened your 
story. 



CHAPTER XV 

THE PLACE OF ACTION IN FICTION 

As PEOPLE progress in culture there is a 
strong tendency more and more to consider 
physical action in fiction crude. This is un- 
fortunate — and unthinking. 

Action Considered Unliterary. — ^The cause, 
I think, is twofold. First, most of the crud- 
est published fiction relies to a great extent 
on action. It is natural and illogical to con- 
struct the following syllogism: 

All crude fiction is action. 
Crudity is poor art. 
Therefore action is poor art. 

Second, as a race develops in civilization 
and culture it nearly always tends to lose 
vigor, drifts further and further away from 
physical action and more and more into 
ease, inactivity and softness. It also tends 
more and more to nicety and detail and 
205 



206 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

away from the elemental. Physical action is 
elemental and inclined to sweep nicety and 
detail aside. Naturally both critics and 
writers come to consider action crude, some- 
thing behind and beneath them. Conse- 
quently, as a rule, only the lower-grade writ- 
ers use much action. Consequently action 
stories as a whole sink to a still lower level. 
Consequently readers feel still more justi- 
fied in considering action crude. But is it? 

False Culture. — Things would be vastly 
simplified and improved if all who think 
they know what really constitutes good lit- 
erature really did know. Nine out of ten 
have for sole standard the opinions of oth- 
ers. The "others" are fallible, many of them 
distinctly unreliable. The nine are, of 
course, unable to tell whose or which opin- 
ions are worth while. None of them does 
any real thinking of his own and most of 
them do not even make the attempt. There 
are nine of them who do not to one who does 
think and does know. The resulting stand- 
ard is painful. Also artificial and unsound. 

A sad feature is that their methods tend to 
unify their opinions and thus give them the 
preponderating influence in shaping the 



THE PLACE OF ACTION IN FICTION 207 

opinions of all the people who don't pretend 
to know. Professional critics being com- 
parativeW few, each critic sways many 
sheep. Also, the sheep have been referred, 
rightly enough, to the Atlantic as the "most 
literary magazine in America." They accept 
its standard without discrimination or un- 
derstanding. If a piece of fiction is differ- 
ent, in any way, from tlie fiction of the 
Atlantic, they therefore consider it unliter- 
ary. Worst of all, many of those who judge 
by Atlantic standards have a bare bowing ac- 
quaintance with that most excellent maga- 
zine. 

Now the Atlantic, for all its scope and 
splendid humanness, in some respects sal- 
vors of the library rather than of the rough 
world at large. Critics, being human, and 
being generally compelled to do a lot of 
criticizing, weary of the everlasting funda- 
mentals and seek relief in attention to the 
niceties and curlycues, these being, also, 
more plentifully at hand. The sheep herded 
by the critics and by the Atlantic "habit" 
naturally come to look down, way down, 
upon the action story. 

Also, popular demand for action in fiction 



208 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

continues strong. It is a cardinal tenet of 
the unliterary literary person's belief that 
anything popular is therefore low. I shall 
not be surprised if some day all fiction that 
interests in any way is condemned because 
the popular demand is for fiction that inter- 
ests. 

Still another factor is at work. In cling- 
ing blindly to the classics as standards and 
models many fail to discriminate eitlier in 
recognizing just which qualities in a classic 
entitle it to lasting place or in allowing for 
the difference between the time in which it 
was written and our own times. Some of its 
qualities stand forever, but in many cases 
other qualities lack that permanence of ap- 
peal and are very distinctly tuned to its own 
era. Is the verbosity of a century or two ago, 
or the sentimentality of the early Victorian 
period, in key with the spirit and genius of 
this century? How could it be when our 
whole civilization has rushed us into a hun- 
dred fold greater speed and intensity, sur- 
rounded us with a million incentives to 
practical activity and hurry? Railroads, 
steamships, trolleys, autos, modern newspa- 
pers, motion-pictures, telephones, telegraphs. 



THE PLACE OF ACTION IN FICTION 209 

wireless, electricity and machineiy in gen- 
eral, these have geared us to a far faster 
pace. We can no longer travel naturally in 
stage-coaches. The Yicar of Wakefield, al- 
lowing it its excellencies, is no longer geared 
to living man. Therefore, in that respect, it 
is not a classic, not permanent, should not be 
even a subconscious model. 

And in the choosing of books to be labeled 
classics the natural inadaptability of the old 
generation to the new, together with the ten- 
dency to limit "literature" to products re- 
fined away from elementals instead of merely 
away from crudities, has still further cast 
action into disrepute. 

All in all, the action story has a pretty hard 
time of it nowadays if it dares plead any 
claim to being literature. 

Fundamental Tests. — ^Yet, if the test of lit- 
erature be its permanent appeal to human 
beings, regardless of changing times, the ac- 
tion story fares at least as well as the best. 

To be permanent an appeal must reach 
the only things that are permanent and uni- 
versal in human beings, the only permanent 
and universal things are the elementary, 
fundamental ones, and "action" meets that 



210 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

test at least as well as anything else. Un- 
doubtedly the race was acting before it was 
psychologizing or even talking. 

If proof of this fundamental and everlast- 
ing hold is needed, witness the wide-spread, 
undying demand for action stories. Also 
note the fact that most of the classics that 
have lived longest are crammed full of ac- 
tion — Homer, Virgil, any of the epics or 
sagas. No, they don't live because of that 
alone, but could they have lived without it? 

If you think that, for all their culture, the 
most sophisticated and literary specimens 
among us have really grown beyond the 
reach of the action appeal, you are much 
mistaken. Try them, when no one is look- 
ing, with a good action story, even one un- 
sanctified as a classic. Scratch the skin and 
you'll find red corpuscles in even the most 
anemic blood. Somewhere deep in each of 
them is the impulse to do, and the admira- 
tion for doing. As children they gave it nat- 
ural outlet; has the leopard changed his 
spots? Neither restraint nor veneer, neither 
pose nor inactive living, can eradicate this 
thing the child was born with. 

I've particular reason to speak on that 



THE PLACE OF ACTION IN FICTION 211 

point. Adventure was founded with the pri- 
mary purpose of meeting this action de- 
mand on the part of the more cultured 
classes, the people whose normal reading is 
of the "highbrow" variety but who habit- 
ually turn at odd moments to stories of ac- 
tion, who accept "trashy" stories if no better 
offer, but prefer stories sufficiently well 
done to stand the test of their sophistication. 
The fact that the magazine's secondary ap- 
peal is to those of less literary sophistication 
and franker interest in the elementals in no 
way invalidates the primary aim or seems to 
limit its success. It is difficult to say which 
of these classes is naturally the more given 
to writing letters to magazines, but it is dif- 
ficult to say which of them is the more 
heavily represented in my correspondence 
basket. 

The latter, I suppose, depends upon where 
you attempt to draw a hard and fast line be- 
tween the two classes. Professional men of 
all classes form a large part of the audience 
— physicians, lawyers, educators, scientists, 
engineers, statesmen, ministers and priests; 
letters from those of undoubted culture in 
the ordinary sense of that word are very 



212 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

strongly in evidence; more than once the 
definite, concrete statement has been volun- 
teered that "I read only two magazines — 
Atlantic and Adventure." Yet, personally, I 
find it not always easy to say that this gen- 
eral class has a keener sense for what seem 
to me the essential literary values. More ar- 
ticulate and with better opportunity for 
comparisons, yes; but with point of view more 
obscured by their sophistication. However, 
there is no doubt as to the common action 
appeal to both extremes of the audience, and 
nearly a dozen years have eradicated my 
last doubt of action response beneath even 
the heaviest veneer of culture. 

Its audience is about eighty-five per cent, 
men, but other action magazines, aimed at 
both sexes, have audiences nearly equally 
divided as to sex. Eliminate sex appeal, the 
love element, and, even with women, action 
appeal will take first place. 

What Is Fiction Elementally? — Elemen- 
tally a story is a narrative. A narrative im- 
plies events, is a record of action, not a trea- 
tise, a laboratory record or a post-mortem. 

The Rightful Place of Action in Literature. 
> — In addition to its claim to place in the best 



THE PLACE OF ACTION IN FICTION 213 

literature because of its fundamental and 
permanent appeal and in addition to its be- 
ing the essence of narrative, there is one 
thing more to be said. 

In its crudest expression you may consign 
it to what depths you please, but in its es- 
sence, in its potentialities, I challenge you to 
deny it the highest rank of all as material of 
fiction. For action is the crystallization of 
psychology. It is the ultimate, final expres- 
sion of character, of all a character has 
thought, felt and said, of all a character is or 
can be. Physical action. It need not be ex- 
citing and adventurous. It may be expressed 
negatively, through repression. But psy- 
chology', character, morals, what j^ou will, 
none of these has been really born into the 
world, has borne recognizable fruit, until it 
has in some manner acted physically, or 
taken phj^sical shape through action. 

It follows that, in literature at its best, ac- 
tion must be the perfect, logical, inevitable 
and complete result and register of all psy- 
chology of the characters in relation to all 
circumstances and conditions of the story. 
No other element of literature has so diffi- 
cult a test to meet, for, aside from its own de- 



214 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

mands, it must be the final and exact expres- 
sion of everything else in the story. 

Yet the action story is sweepingly con- 
demned as a type! 

The Place of Action in Practise. — Nothing 
can make more plain the undiscriminating 
contempt for action as fiction material than 
the actual practise of most writers. Action 
being in its crude form the simplest material 
as well as the most natural, the majority of 
writers begin with it. Generally, as they 
gain in skill they develop, at about equal rate, 
the idea that all action is crude and that real 
progress lies in abandoning it as rapidly as 
possible. In many cases the result is merely 
the absence of fairly good action stories and 
the creation of very sad but very "literary" 
productions. In nearly all cases the cause of 
the change is due to failure to understand 
action's potentialities and rightful place, 
and the result of that lack of understanding 
is generally failure to produce the real lit- 
erature intended. 

By all means try to rise above the crude 
"Diamond Dick" type of action story, but be 
sure you can substitute something better, 
aside from improved technique. Better a 



THE PL.\CE OF ACTION IN FICTION 215 

storj'^ of rather crude but convincing action 
than a miserable mess of half-baked psy- 
chology and falsely glittering "literai'y fin- 
ish" whose chief proof of literary quality 
must be its freedom from physical action. 
If you sincerely intend to do real literature, 
get firmly into j'our head the truth that ac- 
tion should be the perfect crystallization of 
all else in your story and then use as much 
or as little of it as is needed for that crystal- 
lization. If you try that, j^ou Avill get an ex- 
treme test of all the literary ability you can 
summon, and if you succeed, you will have 
attained what only the comparative few are 
capable of attaining. Even to make a start 
you must rid yourself of the absurd idea 
that action per se is unliterary. 

Popular Demand. — Since the Great War 
popular demand for action fiction is strong- 
er than ever, despite the strong antipathy for 
material directly connected with it and de- 
spite a definite reaction in favor of quiet, 
peacefulness and things spiritual. 

If it's popular demand you're considering, 
consider this: Real life, perhaps now more 
than ever before, consists very largely of re- 
straints and inhibitions. Human nature is 



216 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

just as human as it ever was — there are just 
as many things in it to be restrained and in- 
hibited. And, underneath all our civiliza- 
tion, we're just as tired of having to do it — 
probably more so, since our civilization is 
more civilized and therefore more exacting 
than its predecessors. If we can't escape 
from the fetters in real life, can't be free to 
follow our undoubted impulses, as readers 
we'll all the more welcome a chance for vi- 
carious freedom. 



CHAPTER XVI 

ADAPTATION OF STYLE TO MATERIAL 

If the theory suggested by the chapter 
head had not withstood the test of ten years 
and the judgment of a number of people 
whose judgment is worth having, I should 
not venture to present it here even in brief 
space, for if carried into practise it would 
more or less revolutionize the art of fiction. 
Perhaps, too, it has already been advanced, 
though I have never happened to run across 
it or to hear of it through others. 

In an earlier chapter was the statement 
that the art process of fiction consists of 
three steps — Material, Artist and Reader and 
that the third step fails to get anj^thing ap- 
proaching due consideration in either theory 
or practise. This book is largely an attempt 
to emphasize this fact and a plea that the 
reader be given greater importance in the 
teaching of fiction writing. 
217 



218 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

I 

While working out and testing this theory 
of the reader's place in creative work I was 
testing out also another theory which seemed 
to have little connection with the first and, 
with my perspective ruined by specializa- 
tion, it was only a year or two ago the almost 
self-evident fact dawned upon me that the 
two fitted neatly into each other and consti- 
tuted a complete theoiy of the art process. 
Until then each had been locked away in its 
own little compartment, there being no intent 
of building up a rounded out whole. 

While the first theory dealt with neglect of 
the reader in the general art process, the oth- 
er centered on the neglect of material as an 
influence on style. In other words, writers 
seeined too concentrated on themselves, the 
Artists, in the creative process and too neg- 
lectful of the two other steps, Material and 
Reader. 

Rigidity of Style as to Material. — To pre- 
sent the matter briefly, all that an author has 
to convey to you comes to you through a sin- 
gle medium which we call his style and 
which in practise is singularly inelastic in re- 
lation to the great variety of things that must 
pass through it. Take Maurice Hewlitt in 



ADAPTATION OF STYLE TO MATERIAL 219 

his earlier daj^s when his accentuated and 
highly individuahzcd style make him a good 
example. Through that one unchanging 
style had to come to you tragedy, comedy, 
pathos, contemplation, action, love, hate, pa- 
tience, anger, romance, satire. All the gamut 
of human emotions in the material must be 
crushed into uniformity of expression before 
it could reach you, losing of its own essence 
in the process. All must be translated into 
the one inflexible rhythm and jingle of that 
one style — standardized, as it w^ere, out of 
much of their individualitj'^ and strength. 
Such a loss is a calamity, and, I think, to a 
marked degree unnecessaiy. 

In poetry the need of guarding against this 
loss is definitely recognized, if not as a broad 
principle, at least in adaptation of sound to 
sense and in selection of the metrical form 
best adapted to a given theme. Why should 
it not be at least equally guarded against in 
prose? Many of the distinguishing qualities 
of poetry as opposed to prose vary with dif- 
ferent races and with the march of time. Of 
the universal, permanent distinguishing 
qualities are there any that should differen- 
tiate poetry from prose as to the importance 



220 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

of the Material's influence on style in trans- 
mission of Material to Reader through 
Artist? 

That there are already in our fiction occa- 
sional and sporadic cases of this adaptation 
of style to material shows the soundness of 
the theoi-y, for these examples are evidently 
not for the most part the result of studied ef- 
fort but instances in which the writer's art is 
sufficiently developed to break through his 
usual stj-^le and spontaneously adapt expres- 
sion to the thing expressed. 

There are even stray rules pointing in this 
direction, but chiefly for dialogue where a 
demand for adaptation makes itself felt 
through the need of making a character ex- 
press his emotions as a real person would ex- 
press them in real life. For example, the use 
of short sharp sentences and simple Anglo- 
Saxon words in most cases of emotional 
stress. 

But if you wish an example of what adap- 
tation of style to material is capable of ac- 
complishing if used as a fixed and general 
principle of composition, turn to Shake- 
peare, forgetting the non-essential fact that 
he is a poet. 



ADAPTATION OF STYLE TO MATERIAL 221 

Style in Relation to Material. — Style is the 
expression of material through the artist, of 
material as transmuted through his individ- 
uality. He is, if you like, a part of his ma- 
terial, but, on that basis, he divides cleanly 
into two parts, one of them, the artist, ex- 
pressing the other, the material. What I ob- 
ject to is the attempt to express through a 
single, inelastic style all of his material, all 
of himself as material, or all of himself as 
artist. There is no one style that can even 
approximate perfect expression of all that is 
in the world. 

Do tragedy, comedy, pathos, love, anger, 
excitement, calm speak the same language 
in real life? Must not human art at least ap- 
proximate human life if only by a kind of 
symbolism? What writer, or any other hu- 
man being, can approximate expression of 
all of himself through the intoning of any 
one single style? Does he go from cradle to 
grave in one single chord? Does he not re- 
spond to emotions, his own or other people's, 
as a harp to hand? And yet, God save the 
mark, when he comes to write he calmly 
tries to squeeze death and all living into a 
single monotone! 



222 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

Is literature merely the click of a tele- 
graph key, crushing all juice from life to re- 
duce all life to its own infle^xibie code and 
flat rhythm? Is an author merely a funnel 
through which all the juice of life must 
emerge at the small end in a single thin 
stream? 

Demands of Unity. — Art's demand for 
unity is fundamental and not to be denied, 
but what has been our idea of unity of style? 
Merely to whistle one note and call it a satis- 
factory expression of the author and the uni- 
verse. It can not be. And to attain this one 
note in a story we place no limit to the vio- 
lence needed to make all human emotions 
give up their own individuality in order to 
be in key. It is well enough, as far as it goes, 
but it is only a first crude step. It is time 
we took a step beyond. 

Can any artistic demand for unity be based 
on any elemental more fundamental and in- 
disputable than the irreconcilable difference 
of opposite human emotions? 

Let the author mold his material to his In- 
dividuality, unify it throu'gh himself, express 
it through his individual style. Let him mold 
his material into unity around what single 



ADAPTATION OF STYLE TO MATERIAL 223 

thought or emotion he please hefore he 
passes it through his style. But let him make 
that style, not*?i single inflexible note, but a 
lune, a tune that sings high or low, loud or 
soft, in majors or minors, harmony or dis- 
cord, fast or slow, expressing in delicate re- 
sponse the varying emotions of its song 
through the singer, itself a unity and an ex- 
pression and in each of its parts a unity and 
expression of that part. 

Let Your Style Respond. — If you are sin- 
cere in your work, if you really feel your ma- 
terial and if j^ou are not so ridden and op- 
pressed by rules that you can not be natural, 
your style will of its own accord tend to at- 
tune itself to what it expresses. Give it the 
chance, encourage it to do so. Let no rule of 
misinterpreted unity force it into one monot- 
onous, inflexible note impervious to all the 
emotions of the material that strive to break 
through into expressions of themselves so 
that they themselves can reach the reader in 
something of the fulness and color of reality 
instead of in the shape of cold line drawings. 

Let your tunc follow the moods of what it 
sings about. If in your material comes trag- 
edy after a grayness of every-day affairs. 



224 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

will your song ripple on in unchanged meas- 
ure? Why not let the tragedy come through 
into the song itself? Let each mood of your 
material come through into your song and 
to your reader. If there follows a relief 
scene of comedy, how much of comedy will 
fail to reach the reader if it fails to tinge 
even the medium of transmission? 

If you are not musician enough to compose 
the various elements of material into your 
style-tune, at least you can approximate by 
the use of notes you know produce the gen- 
eral effect and are keyed to the mood you 
desire to reproduce in your reader — rhythm 
changed to smoothness or harshness, sen- 
tence-length changed to that generally used 
in real life for the expression of that mood, 
words chosen for slowness and weight or 
speed and lightness, skilful use of adaptation 
of sound to sense, few words for speed of ac- 
tion, many for waiting and suspense. 

The Need of Emphasizing the Relation of 
Style to Material. — All these things are done 
— a little — by a few. These few are of the 
real artists. It is because they are real ar- 
tists that their material finds expression in. 
their style. It is not because responsiveness 



ADAPTATION OF STYLE TO MATERIAL 225 

of style to material is systematically taught. 
It should be, if American fictionists are to 
attain the development their natural advan- 
tages make possible to them. It is the art of 
artists that most deserves teaching so far as 
it can be taught, particularly if it is so potent 
that it pushes its way without encourage- 
ment and against heavy odds of hindering 
rules. 

I have only outlined the need and the pos- 
sibilities and, I fear, made a poor case of it. 
But some day some one else will give it full 
and convincing presentation — if, indeed, 
some one has not already done so outside my 
knowledge. In any case, there lies a line of 
development that sooner or later fiction is 
bound to follow. 

Whether you believe it or not, give it slow 
consideration in your mind. Even if you de- 
cide against it in the end, the considering of 
it will teach you more concerning style than 
you are likely to get from the study of other 
people's rules. 

Of that I am very sure. In your case yon 
are the most important authority. Appeal to 
that authority and see that it gives judgment, 
judgment reasoned out, by you, from funda- 



226 FUNDAMENTALS OF FICTION WRITING 

mentals. Let no rules by other people im- 
pose themselves until you have reasoned out 
their worth. Keep and develop your own in- 
dividuality. 

And the one best way to learn to write is 
to — write. 

I hereby absolve you from all rules in this 
book except such rules as warn against rules. 

THE END 



APPENDIX 

YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 

To NEW writers, and to most old ones, a 
magazine editorial office is, among other 
things, a mystery, not the least mysterious of 
its contents being the editors. It is, of course, 
no more mysterious than the office of any 
other specialized business, and editors are 
merely one small class among many classes 
doing various kinds of specialized work. 
Certainly there seems no justification for the 
traditional awe in which editors are held by 
so great a majority of people. This awe is 
undeniably present and does more than a lit- 
tle to prevent more comfortable relations be- 
tween writers and readers on one hand and 
editors on the other. Partly it is a "hang- 
over" from a past age when editors better 
earned an atmosphere of awe as individual 
molders of public opinion, and partly it is 
due to people's insistence on regarding with 
a peculiar and undiscriminating reverence 

227 



228 APPENDIX 

anybody or any thing connected, however re- 
motely, with "literature." 

It shouldn't be necessary to say so, but, if 
the testimony of one of them can be accepted 
by those who persist in considering them 
something very much above — or below — the 
normal, editors are just ordinary humans no 
different in essentials from any other people 
of ordinary education. As in any collection 
of people, there are all kinds among us, even 
those who breathe a rarified atmosphere and 
hold themselves superior to their fellows, 
but, heavens, think of waiters you have 
known ! While as to barbers and policemen — 

Just humans, whose job happens to be that 
of trying to choose from many manuscripts 
those the reading public will like best. If 
the manuscripts they handle happen to be 
fact articles as well as fiction, there is also 
the job of selecting with an idea of educa- 
tion, or of advancing some cause or principle 
advocated by the particular magazine, but 
even here there is also the job of pleasing the 
reading public. Besides that, if the editor 
has a plain or social conscience, the desire to 
leave people the better, rather than the 
worse, for their reading. That's all. 



YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 229 

A word more about that job, so that we ed- 
itors may not seem quite so mysterious, in- 
consistent, arbitrarj^ and other things as we 
do at present. Take the editor of any fic- 
tion magazine — or any magazine, for that 
matter. So long as he works on that partic- 
ular magazine his job is, generally speaking, 
not to test a manuscript by its general lit- 
erary or its general magazine merits, nor to 
choose according to his own personal tastes, 
but, to the best of his ability, to choose first 
according to its suitability to that particular 
magazine. If John Jones is editor of magazine 
B and then becomes editor of magazine 
C, his manuscript tests will change instant- 
ly. He will accept some stories he rejected 
for B and reject some others that he 
would gladly have taken for B. That is, if 
John is a good editor and has not delib- 
erately taken up the task of making G as 
much like B as possible. 

Each fiction magazine aims at a special 
type of reader, or a special group of readers. 
Therefore it tries to individualize itself in 
such manner as to get and hold the interest 
of that type. Its "policy" may undergo 
changes, but it is always a more or less in- 



230 APPENDIX 

dividualized one. What is one magazine's 
meat may be another magazine's poison. 

There are other reasons wliy the rejection 
of a manuscript is "not necessarily a reflec- 
tion upon its merits." It may fall fairly 
within the individualized field of a mag- 
azine and be recognized by the editor as of 
entirely sufficient merit, yet be sent back. A 
grocer or a druggist or a delicatessen man 
acts exactly the same way. If one hundred 
cans of corn is the number a grocer is justi- 
fied by sales in carrying on his inventory 
and he already has one hundred cans of corn, 
he doesn't buy any more cans. If an editor 
estimates that his readers' demand justifies 
him in buying about fifty love-stories, five 
tragic stories, ten business stories, etc., per 
year and he already has in stock the full 
quota of each that should be on hand at any 
one time, he, like the grocer, buys no more of 
these types. 

Length, as well as type, is also a factor 
that an editor must consider in the light of 
his inventory. 

Of course, there are all kinds of exceptions 
in applying the inventory test to manu- 
scripts, for stories are not standardized like 



YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 231 

cans of corn nor do all magazines adhere to 
so rigid a basis of selection. Then, too, there 
is the fact that some types are, permanently 
or temporarily, difficult to secure and, when 
sufficiently well executed, are likely to be 
seized upon at any time. Really good hu- 
morous stories, being notoriously difficult to 
find, would hardly be rejected even by a 
magazine with its normal supply of humor- 
ous stories already in the safe. 

Also, manuscripts come in waves, not only 
as to number but as to setting, material, 
theme, and so on. For six months, a year, 
three years, there may be, for example, an 
oversupply of stories of diplomatic life, ru- 
ral stories, stories laid in Latin America, and 
a dearth of stories of golfing, stories of olden 
times, sea stories. By the end of a year or 
two the situation may be completely re- 
versed on any or all of these types. In most 
cases the change from dearth to plenty or 
vice versa is without warning or discernible 
cause. After being caught by a few dearths 
an editor is likely to stock up with a reserve 
on types that have shown themselves subject 
to fluctuation in supply. On the other hand, 
he may decide that writers as a whole, in 



232 APPENDIX 

their fancy or lack of fancy for a type, are 
a fairly safe index to the fancy of the public 
in general. 

In any case, many factors besides merit, 
recognized or unrecognized, and besides bad 
judgment by editors, decide the fate of man- 
uscripts. On the other hand, most manu- 
scripts are rejected for the all sufficient rea- 
son that they do lack sufficient merit. 

Some ideas are prevalent that seem worth 
meeting. 

A "pull" is seldom of service in gaining 
acceptance for manuscripts; of none at all 
so far as my observation extends, and I can 
not now recall, even froin hearsa3% any case 
in which "pull" took the place of merit. 
Doubtless there are such instances, but, eth- 
ics aside, progress through "pull" is not 
worth a writer's practical consideration. 
Many beginners believe they will get a better 
hearing for their stories if they present them 
in person instead of mailing them. It's an 
editor's business to select manuscripts ac- 
cording to their values, not according to his 
opinion of their authors, and I think most 
editors do so. If he is subject to personal in- 
fluence, don't forget that you may make an 



YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 233 

unfavorable, instead of a favorable, impres- 
sion. In any case you're taking from him 
time that he probably needs badly and is not 
likely to be happy over losing. What you 
have to say to him can almost always be said 
equally well by letter, perhaps far better. A 
letter takes less of his time and — he can 
choose his time for reading it. 

I know of no fiction magazine that has a 
"regular staff" of writers in the sense of its 
having no opening for new writers. Often a 
magazine comes to depend for the bulk of 
its supply upon a comparative few who have 
proved themselves best able to provide that 
suppl}', but that does not mean that it hasn't 
a welcome for others. 

The oft-heard wail that "a new writer has 
no chance with editors" is merely sillj''. 
Weren't all the "old" writers once new? 
How% pray, did they gain their first footing? 
In one sense, to be sure, new writers have lit- 
tle chance with editors for the sweet and 
simple reason that a majority of beginners 
haven't sufficient merit to earn them a 
chance with any competent, fair-minded 
judge. Some of them will never have. Some 
have not yet developed and are worthless to 



234 APPENDIX 

magazines until they do. If a writer can't de- 
velop unless encouraged by acceptances be- 
fore he has developed, he almost surely 
hasn't in him the ability to develop in any 
circumstances. 

Don't be discouraged by rejections. They 
are merely the usual thing. Tliey only class 
your manuscript among the eighty-five to 
ninety-nine per cent, that every magazine 
turns back. Along with yours many man- 
uscripts of successful or even famous au- 
thors are rejected, and some of these reject- 
ed stories, possibly yours among them, will 
be accepted by other magazines. The only 
disgrace is in being discouraged. If, instead 
of the usual printed slip, you get a note from 
one of the staff, be glad, for your manuscript 
has raised itself above the others and earned 
attention for its merits; jj^our rejection is 
really a step forward — the big first step. 

Often the beginner's discouragement is 
due to his trying his wares on the wrong 
market. Would you try to sell a lady's slip- 
pers to a civil engineer, a soldier's boots to a 
dainty dame of fashion, a policeman's bro- 
gans to a child? Yet that is exactly what so 
many of you try to do with manuscripts. I 



YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 235 

am, though an editor myself, quite incapable 
of saying just which magazines will buy 
which manuscripts, for an infinite variety of 
factors and circumstances are involved, but 
the total ignorance of magazine markets dis- 
played by many beginners can be due to 
nothing but failure to give the field even a 
rudimentary consideration before trying to 
master it. 

The elementary rules for the actual sub- 
mission of manuscripts have been printed 
thousands of times, but the need for them 
abides : 

Every manuscript should be typewritten. 
No matter how good handwriting ma}^ be, it 
imposes a heavy handicap on any man- 
uscript, for, in comparison with other man- 
uscripts in typewriting, its story can unfold 
only on leaden feet even to the most patient, 
kindly and self-sacrificing editor. 

Double-space the typewriting. It reads 
more easily, allows you sufficient space to 
make your own alterations and corrections 
without messing parts of your story into il- 
legibility, and, if the manuscript is bought, 
gives space for editing it as copy for the 
printer to follow. 



236 APPENDIX 

Write on only one side of the paper. This 
custom is so firmly established that it's folly 
to violate it and almost no one does. There 
are plenty of reasons for the custom, but its 
mere existence is practical reason enough. 

Leave a fairly wide margin on the left- 
hand side of each sheet — as a kindness to the 
editor in case your manuscript is bought and 
to the compositor who must read and set 
what you have written and the editor edited. 

Type j'our name and address on the first 
page of your manuscript. For common • 
sense reasons. 

Number your pages. Consecutively 
straight through from beginning to end. Es- 
pecially if you hope for any chance of de- 
tailed criticism from the editor. 

Unless your manuscript is to be returned 
express collect, enclose stamped, self-ad- 
dressed envelope of sufficient size and 
strength, or at least sufficient postage. As a 
matter of common honesty. A surprising 
number of writers are not honest in this 
respect. 

If you write to the editor when you submit 
a manuscript, see that the letter is enclosed 
with the manuscript, not sent under separate 



YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 237 

cover. If your idea in writing is to further 
the chances of your storj^ you're going about 
it in a poor way if j^ou add to the editor's 
troubles by making him handle your case in 
two parts instead of one. Or by making him 
read your autobiography in full. 

Several things will help toward a better 
understanding of the editorial attitude to- 
ward manuscripts. First, tell me, did you 
ever know a merchant to work hard day 
after day for the purpose of avoiding buying 
stock for his customers' demands? No, the 
editor desires to buy; he spends his time try- 
ing to get stories, not to avoid them. When 
he finds one that meets his needs he rejoices. 
A minority of magazines seek first of all for 
authors with "big names," because of the fol- 
lowing they command among the reading 
public, but the editors of even these are in- 
clined to pat themselves on the back when 
they "find" a brand-new author of merit. 

Second, to balance the above, remember 
that your manuscript is merely one among 
thousands that come to an editor. 

There is a wide-spread feeling that many 
manuscripts are rejected only because they 
arc read, not by the editor himself, but by 



238 APPENDIX 

some assistant. There are two "schools" of 
manuscript-reading. One method is to let 
the most inexperienced readers weed out the 
bulk of submitted manuscripts, thus saving 
the more experienced readers much time. 
The other method reverses the process; a 
more experienced reader does the first sort- 
ing. The latter seems to be gaining ground; 
personally I believe in it strongly. My own 
experience may serve to illustrate the sit- 
uation. For years every manuscript came to 
my hands first. As their number increased 
this became a physical impossibility. Man- 
uscript-reading is only one of an editor's 
many duties, a fact that many lose sight of. 
At present from one to two working days per 
week is probably a generous estimate of the 
time I give to manuscript-reading. The read- 
ing is done mostly in bits — in the evenings, 
on trains, in days spent at home for the pur- 
pose. In the office itself I can't get time to 
read a dozen manuscripts a year. And much 
of the otlier kinds of work also is done out- 
side. Many other editors are in similar case. 
But in delegating the bulk of the work the 
most experienced editor on the staff is the 
one who first reads the stories from "un- 



YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 239 

knowns." Except in cases of appeal, stories 
by our "regular" writers do not pass tlirough 
his hands at all, but go first to editors of less 
experience and from them to me. 

Some magazines have a special "fiction 
editor," who is often the court of final ap- 
peal, may have been chosen by the editor as 
superior to himself in this branch of edito- 
rial w^ork and may or may not be the first to 
read manuscripts. 

The thing to remember is that if the editor 
delegates the first reading it does not follow 
that he minimizes its importance and he gen- 
erally takes care to put it into as capable 
hands as he can. Remember, also, the gen- 
eral rule is that a first reader is instructed 
to mark all doubtful cases for a second hear- 
ing; also that it's to his own personal interest 
to "find" every good story he can if he 
wishes to hold his job. 

How much of a manuscript does a reader 
read? A sentence, a paragraph, a few pages, 
maybe all of it. Unfair and inefficient not 
to read all of each? My personal opinion is 
that manuscript-reading is one of the things 
that can be learned by experience only. But, 
having the experience, an editor can reject 



240 APPENDIX 

the "culls" very swiftly and with a good deal 
of sureness. He can tell all the hack plots at 
a glance, knows the kinds of opening that 
are never followed by a good story, can tell 
in a few sentences or paragraphs whether a 
writer has sufficient skill in handling his 
tools to be able to turn out an acceptable 
story and — has at his finger-ends all the 
kinds of material, setting, plot, treatment, 
etc., that his particular magazine does not 
use. If in doubt, he reads further or sam- 
ples it out here and there and glances at the 
end. If still in doubt, he reads it all. Some- 
times knowing the story to be unusable, he 
reads it all because the author's possibilities 
are worth serious consideration even if the 
otory in hand isn't. 

As to the final reading I think, from what 
data I chance to have, that I'm not in accord 
with the majority custom. When I'm famil- 
iar with a writer's work and he's fairly 
steady, the endorsement of the man who 
passed it over to me is often sufficient, since 
he too knows that writer's work and would 
have noted any let-down or doubtful points. 
In other cases, sometimes a few pages — with 
maybe a glance at the remainder — is suffi- 



YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 241 

cient for rejection, unless the other editor, 
having read it all, has voted for it or makes 
the point that we can help the writer revise 
it into suitable shape. But what I do read I 
read word for word page after page until I 
find definite cause for rejection, for I can't 
believe that I can judge from the reading 
public's point of view unless I read as I think 
most of the reading public reads — word for 
word. Maybe other editors can, but, at least 
in most cases, I can't. 

But be sure of this — whatever their read- 
ing methods, editors are trying to find good 
stories, not to reject them. 

Many magazines contract in advance for 
stories by well-known writers, buying sight 
unseen and trusting wholly to the writer's 
steadiness, conscientiousness and popular 
following. In some cases this is perfectly 
safe; in others decidedly not. It means, es- 
sentially, that the writer has left the merit 
system and works on a sure-thing basis, 
which is not good for most writers. 

Do not decide that your story was rejected 
because an editor read it when he was tired 
or his liver was out of order. Editors get 
tired and their livers are as undcpcndable as 



242 APPENDIX 

anybody's liver, but they know this and 
make allowances accordingly. In fact, it's a 
pretty safe rule to decide that your story was 
rejected for lack of merit or for unsuitability 
to the particular magazine. If not convinced 
of the former reason, keep sending your 
story to other magazines. Many a story has 
been rejected by five, ten, twenty, fifty mag- 
azines and yet found an acceptance, perhaps 
by a better magazine than some of those that 
rejected it, though the majority of man- 
uscripts submitted probably never find a 
taker. 

Oh, yes, the editor is fallible like every- 
body else including yourself. But after all 
he's an expert of experience in his own par- 
ticular line, experience has given him a per- 
spective you lack, and he has an understand- 
ing of his magazine's particular needs that 
no outsider can have. In the long run you'll 
make progress faster if, allowing for the fal- 
libility of the genus editor, you decide to ac- 
cept his verdict as more dependable than 
that of your friends or yourself. Anyhow, 
there's more to be gained from looking for 
weak places in your work than from striving 
to prove its excellencies by argument. 



YOUR MANUSCRIPTS AND THE EDITORS 213 

This is a rambling, hop-skip-and-junip 
chapter, but there are a thousand little 
points that bob up one after the other and 
choosing among them is haphazard work at 
best. All I've tried to do is to give you a 
sketchy idea of editorial offices and their 
working so that sending manuscripts to them 
will not be quite so much like sending them 
out into a hostile unknown. 



INDEX 



INDEX 



Academic methods of teach- 
ing fiction: 5, io-4, 38-9, 
42-4, 51, 108, 134-5, 154-5, 
168-9, 171-2, 180-96. 

Action: 96, 129-30, 135-7, 
20s- 1 6. 

Ambiguit}': See Words. 

Art Process, The: 17-25, 
217-26. 

Art: 17-21, 127-32, 217-26. 

Beginning a storj': 75-6, 

167-9, 176. 
Big words : See Words. 
Brackets: See Frames. 
Brevity: 87, 113-7, 147- 
Chapter headings: iio-i, 

119. 
Characters: 76, 168-9, 170-1, 

175-6, 179. {See also 

Characterization, Proper 

Names.) 
Characterization: loo-i, 

1 13-4, 1 1 7-8, 127-32, 132-9, 

14375, 170-81, 212-3. 
Classical references: See 

References. 
Classics, The: 208-10. 
Clearness: 21, 70-86, 88. 
Coincidence : 104. 
Color: 57, 58-9, 59-62, 75, 

77, 89-90, 105, 1 1 7-8, 197- 

204. 
Condensation : See Brevity. 
Contrast: 150-1, 160-5. {See 

also Relief Scenes.) 
Convincingness: 38, 52, 94- 

108. {See also Illusion.) 
Copying: See Imitation. 

Dialect: 62, 77, 89, 105, 106. 
Dialogue: 76. 



Distractions: 52-69, 88. 
Dramatic element : 109-19. 

Editorial offices: 227-43. 
Ending a story: 147-50, 
165-7. 

Fiction, Wliat it is: 17-24. 

32-4, 64-6, 127-32, 140-2, 

154, 212. 
Fiction as a vehicle: 24, 

32-4, 64-6. 
Fictional references : See 

References. 
First-person narratives : 68, 

104-5, 151. 
Force : 22. 

Foreign words : See Words. 
Frames or brackets : 68, 

91-2, 104-5. 
Friends as critics: 55, 63, 

72-3, 198. 



Happy endings : 

165-7. 
Historical references ; 

References. 
Horror story. The : i: 



247 



123-S, 

See 

3-5- 

Illusion, Imposing and pre- 
serving the : 10, 23-5, 30- 
45, 52-181, 197-204. 

Imagination response: 197- 
204. 

Imitation, Evils of: 102-3, 
104, 187-8. 191-5. 

Improbabilities: 95-101. 

Individuality: 1 18-9. (See 
also hiiitation.) 

Individuality z's. technique: 
See technique. Academic 
methods. 

Literary, Being: 51, I9S-6, 



248 



INDEX 



205-12, 214-S. (See also 
Literature.) 

Literature: 1-3, 25-9, 80-2, 
85, 195-6, 215. (See also 
Literary.) 

Literature vs. Magazine fic- 
tion: 25-9. 

Manuscript reading by edi- 
tors : 182-4, 227-43. 

Manuscripts, Preparing and 
submitting: 227-43. 

Market, The: 227-43. 

Material: 88, 95-ioi, 105-7, 
1 17-8, 123-7, 143-5, 217-26. 

Mistakes, Effect of on read- 
er : 62-3, 77-9, 105-7- (.See 
also Comnncingness, Im- 
probabilities.) 

Models : See Imitation. 

Moral values: 136, 139-45- 

Motion pictures, Effect of: 
1 15-7, 140. 

Mystery stories : 92-3, 
1 1 1-2. 

Obtrusion of author: 66-9. 
Overstrain of reader: 7, 87- 

93, 112. 
Plot: 39, 79, 88, 93, 96-100, 

101-3, 109-19, 145-7, 149, 

154-69, 171, 212-3. 
Plot, positive vs. negative: 

I4S-7- 
Proper names: 59-62, 73-5, 

75-6. 

Readers, Your: 7, 20, 22, 
46-51, 71-3, 105-6, 120-3, 
150, 151, 153, 160-5, 197- 
204, 215-6. (5"^^ also Illu- 
sion, Imagination Re- 
sponse.) 

Realism: 126-32, 133-4, 140- 
I, 161-5. 

References, Classical, his- 
torical, etc. : 59, 75, 89. 



Rejections*. 227-43. 
Relief scenes: 90-1, 112-3. 
Repetition : 86. 
Repression : Sec Brevity. 
Rules: 44-5, Si, 121-3, 134- 

5, 1 50- 1, 154-5, 160-5, 

172-5, 181, 182-96, 226. 

{Sec also Technique, Ac- 

ademic.) 

Sentence length: 88, 117, 
220. 

Setting: 117-8, 152. 

Simplicity: 1-2, 8, 22, 79-86. 

Slang: 77, 89, 105, 106. 

Structure: 23, 156-7. {See 
also Plot.) 

Style: 27, 38-43, 44-5, 63-4, 
64-9, 79-85. 104, 1 17-9, 
121-2, 150, 191-6, 217-26. 
{See also Technique.) 

Surprise: iii, 160-6. 

Suspense: iio-i, 151. 

Sympathies, Enlisting read- 
ers' : 22, 120-53. 

Tags: 175-80. 

Technique, Over-emphasis 

on : 10-4, 38-44, 182-96. 

{See also Academic.) 
Titles: 119. 

Unconvincingness : See Con- 
vincingness. 
Unity: 23, 157-8, 222-4. 
Unusual words : See Words. 

Words, Ambiguous : 73. 
Words, Big: 55-8, 79-8S, 

117. 
Words, Foreign: 58-9, 75, 

89, 105, 106. 
Words, Technical: 75, 89. 
Words, Unusual, 55-62, 89. 
Words, {See also under 

Slang, Dialect, Proper 

Names.) 



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